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Alastair Cook has had a difficult first two days as England's Test captain as life in India has proved as challenging as ever
November 16, 2012
Alastair Cook lives on a farm, so you would expect him to be used to spending long days in the field. Perhaps that was why he was still there at the close of the second day, scanning the Gujarat horizon for the merest hint of a red sky.
It would not have taken a shepherd to warn Cook that life as an England captain abroad is seldom easy but his first official Test in charge has provided him with exceptionally little to smile about. After shuffling his bowling options for 160 overs until his Indian counterpart, MS Dhoni, called them in early - one could almost imagine it was as much out of boredom as attacking impulse - Cook then watched on as three of his colleagues were rendered helpless by the dizzying sensation of facing a subcontinental spinner.
If Cook had spent the last few weeks fretting about his team's chances in India, then he has done well not to show it. He has been groomed for this job, more obviously than any England captain of recent years. Famously, he never sweats - but a rare bead must have broken out as he batted through to the close to the sound of clustered close fielders whooping and jigging again and again.
Although there is plenty of familiar green to catch the eye at Motera (deliberately so to limit the potential from a scrubby outfield or used pitches for reverse swing) it has been a far from pleasant land for England thus far. The reconstituted pitch of sand and red clay need not develop the spin and bounce more commonly seen at Roland Garros to undo the batting line-up twice over, as evinced by the final passage of play.
The positive view - and it is never difficult to find a Pangloss in the England camp - is that their best two batsmen are at the crease with a job to be done. That one is the captain is all the more reason to set an example. He made a hundred in India on his Test debut; another in his first Test as captain must have been on his mind at the end of the day.
Cook even found himself following England's shoddy example in the field as he became the latest player to muff a regulation chance. Samit Patel didn't deserve the wicket of Yuvraj Singh - caught of what might be described as a "fool toss", in that neither bowler nor batsman came out of it well - and he did not do much to earn the chance off R Ashwin shortly before tea but he had a right to expect better as Cook clawed wearily at the ball as it flew past him. Had it been a chicken in the yard, he might have done better.
This is what comes of toiling and grafting as captain in what seems like the cricketing equivalent of a desert, agonising for so long over little details that you miss the big possibility. Was it a mirage or did he sometimes have a vision of Monty Panesar gambolling around in a wicket-taking ecstasy before the sweat ran into you eye?
By the time the catch flew past him, Cook's mind had perhaps already turned towards seeking a route that would lead England out of trouble. In India, it is an overgrown pathway and although Graeme Swann marched ahead unstintingly, the rest of England's attack floundered. Should they have played a second spinner? Could their fields have been more attacking? And what it is going on with the catching? Cook knows as much as anyone about scoring runs in India but, as Test captain, he is still learning how to read a compass.
With Stuart Broad nursing an injury disturbingly close to the start of the match, England were never likely to make him share the fast-bowling burden solely with James Anderson. Did Cook hesitate, even momentarily, when pencilling in the name of his vice-captain? Could he have contemplated cutting England's leading Test bowler in 2012 and going into the match with a better-balanced side, a side including Panesar? Did he even dare to float this with his fellow selectors? These are questions that Cook must learn to wrestle with on a regular basis from now on.
The immediate challenge is to dispense with concerns about the lack of reverse swing or how best to induce a mistake from Cheteshwar Pujara and focus instead on his own batting. Some captains scheme Brearley-like from the slips but others lead in deed.
Cook has already shown an ability to inspire through hard work (if not perspiration, that would be expecting too much) by guiding the ODI side to No. 1 in the world rankings, an achievement that would once have seemed as outlandish as the idea of Kevin Pietersen being welcomed back into the team huddle or England winning a Test series in India.
Cook can be occasionally robotic at the crease and in press conferences. His first two days in the job have been every bit as tough as he could reasonably have expected and this tour may well end up giving him a headache to go with the obligatory stomach rumbles for England tourists. Now comes the time for him to get his hands dirty, just like down on the farm. Good job, it's what he does best.
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