Moores backs Cook's 'steel'
Does a slump in batting form affect captaincy? "That's the million dollar question," said England's coach Peter Moores as the entrails of England's series defeat against Sri Lanka were examined. Being a million dollar question, it will probably be asked a million times. Alastair Cook's leadership remains the hottest topic in English cricket.
The million dollar question could also be turned around. "Does captaincy cause a slump in batting form?" That seems worth just as much. England, having determinedly invested in Cook as a captain are now investing in hostile questions worth a million dollars. Only success against India will prevent runaway inflation taking hold.
Moores and Cook, assembled in the wake of England's 5-0 Ashes thumping, are still feeling each other out. Moores suggested after defeat at Headingley that he has come to sense a "determined steely bloke" in Cook. His batting feats of old suggest that contrary to appearances this must be so, apart maybe from the bloke bit, because he does not seem immediately blokeish.
Nor, from afar, does he seem to relish captaincy on the field: the best captains are obviously in charge whether because they seem to have been anointed from on high, like Strauss and Brearley, or because they have a bloody-minded individualism like Vaughan, Atherton and Hussain. A first home series defeat against Sri Lanka, even if both Tests did go down to the last over, is not about to alter that perception that Cook, as yet, fits neither category.
Next up: India. "If he gets himself into form someone is going to pay," said Moores. That would be England's No. 1 wish as they seek to put an experimental side onto a firmer footing. If not? Moores' answers were somewhat codified. Supportive to Cook, polite and responsive as he underwent the first real hounding since his return as coach, but honest enough to accept that England are in a state of flux and Cook's position is necessarily compromised because of it.
"Judgment is in the game itself," he said.
That sounded like a welcome, down-to-earth cricketing appraisal, somewhat removed from all the fond talk of Cook being a man to build a team around, a captain who needed every chance to blossom, a person who could now build a young team in his own image. The implication that Cook needed protection has surely been debilitating for him. It has certainly damaged the public perception of him as a captain and as one of England's most prolific Test batsmen of all time, a player who deserves to be accorded colossal respect, that was some misjudgement.
More fanciful, especially for a coach not given to fancy, was the suggestion that Cook had his best day as captain on the final day at Headingley. That was a day when he sat in the dressing room all day and watched Moeen Ali fashion brilliant resistance. It is tempting to be facetious. But apparently he made an impressive rallying cry. England supporters will rather hope he did.
"He wasn't on the field today but it was one of his best days as England captain," Moores said, "because one of the challenges at this level is that it becomes so easy to go internal when things aren't going well, but he came in this morning with one clear view to make sure that everybody knew we were going to fight and show spirit as a team.
"I've got to take Alastair as I find him and he's a very determined, steely bloke. That to me is what has come across since I've taken the job. He's got a clear picture of what he wants as a team and how that team should operate.
"Because it doesn't always operate like that at the start, the key here is to see it for what it is and we're going to get to where we want to get to, and not to go away from what it is we're trying to get to. We've got to keep driving that home.
"Nobody more than Alastair knows what international cricket is like. He has been in it since he was 19 or whatever so he knows the script. He'll do his work and he'll be ready to go and he'll be ready to play. He knows we are judged by results; that is the name of the game, be it as a captain or as a batter. He will go to what he knows best, work hard and get ready to play against India, and then the judgement is in the game itself. If you get runs, you get runs, if you don't, you don't."
But is Alastair the right man to take England forward long term?
"Of course it's in your mind. Where Alastair is at as a captain - he has had a very tough six or seven months. He knows that and I can only assess where is at at the moment as a person. He is still clear about what he wants, he is still driven to do the job which says something about his determination to get on and do it, so I think he is the right man.
"I think we are starting to get to know each other. I knew him from before but we have to redefine that relationship and how it works best for the team. With new players coming in we have to redefine what we are as a team and how we play our cricket, so that is all going on at the moment. Two Tests in it is early, but that doesn't mean we are not trying to drive it as fast as we can because we are.
"Normally it would be rare to say 'we're going to pick a team and it's going to work brilliantly straight away'. There are areas where we have got to get better. We have seen areas on our catching we need to address. The key is are we prepared to do the work, are we prepared to face up to the areas where we need to get better?
"The time frame of it, you can't put it on, but the expectation isn't going to change because we are an England team, so we have to take that on the chin. We have got to be prepared to work hard every second of every day to work where we want to get to."
To the suggestion that England are not as good everybody thought they were, Moores responded that England had made no claims at all. It sounded slightly like he was reducing expectations, which is worrying because the football team tried that and all they ended up with was a goalless draw against Costa Rica and a saving on hotel bills.
England have worries about the perceived weariness of their leading strike bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, but Moores suggested that "goes with the territory" of back-to-back Tests and was right to question the contention that the lack of a specialist spinner was responsible. England have switched from a regular reliance on four bowlers, Graeme Swann included, to fielding five, with Moeen Ali and Chris Jordan essentially sharing Swann's overs.
Ben Stokes will be the name on everybody's lips; his Durham captain, Paul Collingwood was quick to praise him for his part in their victory against Sussex while England struggled at Headingley.
It was suggested to Moores that it would be a difficult selection for the first Test against India with Stokes hovering, and Moeen's brilliant rearguard action - a maiden Test century to be proud of - unlikely to silence those who are pressing for a "specialist spinner" as if the England selectors are determinedly ignoring an obvious candidate. There isn't one.
"Test match teams have never been picked on the back of one performance by anybody," Moores said enigmatically. Did that apply to Moeen or Stokes?
He added that "Moeen's knock was great to see for English cricket." But it is unfortunate to say the least when the two players who have produced arguably England's two most uplifting Test innings in the past year - allrounders, too - are the ones who can be least certain that they will be in the side for the first Test against India at Trent Bridge.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo