Cook's lonely battle to survive
West End, a village to the north-east of Southampton and home to the Ageas Bowl, is a bit of a ghost town nowadays. Southampton is a university town, full of students. The students have all gone back home for the summer break. For those left behind it has simply been too hot to venture out. It has not been raining yet, it has been humid because of the proximity to the sea, and temperatures have been touching early 30s over the last week or so. You will struggle to find people outside in the afternoon.
No matter how sleepy the environs might be, those interested in England cricket can feel the importance of the coming weekend for one man and his team. It hangs there like the humidity.
England are one match down in a series of five. The captain Alastair Cook, the basket in which England cricket chose to put all its eggs, has hardly scored a run. The seniors have been letting down the newcomers. Some have called Cook's refusal to give up captaincy defiance and even a cry for help - "I am not going until I feel a tap on my shoulder"; some call it denial and possibly arrogance. If England lose the series, Cook will most likely have to go. There are other careers hanging in the balance, too.
It was mildly surprising then that three days before the Test India were the only team training. It can sometimes pay to go away from the cricket and come back refreshed, but three days away from it would have been a bit much. Around the time India were leaving, at around 4.30pm, in came Alastair Cook, wearing shorts that seemed too loose, falling off his waist. There are bigger things he needs to get a grip on right now.
Cook went up to the England dressing room, and soon coach Peter Moores followed. By now it was only Cook, Moores and a few groundsmen in the ground. Minutes later they asked Nigel Gray, the head groundsman, to join them. A chat was had after which Gray proceeded to water the pitch, which looks green but not as green as the one at Lord's, and the captain-coach duo went to a net at the edge of the square.
A lady of Indian origin, who had been there for India nets and had seemed pretty pleased with how England had been beaten at Lord's, said "good luck Alastair" as Cook walked towards the ground, now dressed in England training kit, with helmet and pads on. "Thanks," said Cook. "I feel sad for him," she said after Cook had left. That glee of having seen England lose had gone. Further endorsement to the belief that Cook is a decent allround bloke.
The next week, though, is not about being decent. It is one of the most important weeks of Cook's career. And he is not taking it lightly. Much like they were on the Lord's balcony about three hours after the defeat, Cook and Moores were working at things again. Cook at least has thousands of runs to go by, Moores might not have a leg to stand on should they lose here and concede an unassailable lead. The two went out, did not take a look at the pitch, and headed straight to the net. A few gentle throwdowns from 15 yards were followed by proper ones from the Sidearm from a full pitch length.
There was a moment of concern in the first few minutes of the session. Moores walked towards Cook, and they both looked at his finger for what seemed like two minutes. Cook then strapped the glove back on, and went into a long session.
The lady who wished Cook luck left soon. The groundsmen followed not much after. Two men fighting to save their careers continued preparing alone in a desolate ground in a desolate town. Two men who are supposed to have preferred fit-in culture to misfit match-winners.
One of those misfits, a possible match-winner, Michael Carberry, was here earlier in the day, practising with his Hampshire team-mates, after which he did a photoshoot in whites. Those were not the England slightly-blue whites, though. Times are desperate for England, but it is difficult to see how Carberry will get another chance.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo