July 13, 2014

Dhoni wins the first round in the captaincy battle

India's and England's captains have both taken some inexplicable decisions in the first Test at Trent Bridge. But Dhoni managed to take advantage of the hosts' frail line-up

In trying to overcome his frailty outside off stump, Alastair Cook has become susceptible to lbw dismissals and to being bowled behind his legs © Associated Press

The England-India series began with two embattled captains trying to assert their authority and establish a position of supremacy. It was the Indian skipper who took the first positive steps in that battle at Trent Bridge.

MS Dhoni started well by winning the toss, which was an important triumph on what looked a dry and lifeless strip and one that should have encouraged India to include two spinners among their five bowlers.

Undeterred by this obvious blunder, Dhoni took another giant stride in the race for supremacy when he batted himself at No. 6; nothing like a strong, positive lead from the skipper to galvanise the troops for a long hard battle.

His counterpart, Alastair Cook, started cautiously but suddenly had a drastic change of heart when he inspired his bowlers with some innovative field placings. This radical change prompted the question: Were these tactics his own idea, or was the ploy brought on by outside criticism or suggestions from team-mates, or even worse, the coach?

If such a drastic change does occur as a result of criticism or prodding, it's not sustainable over a long period. Eventually the natural traits will resurface. Unfortunately for England it soon became clear that the conservative captain Cook was still lurking under the surface.

So was a disturbing trend. Once again England failed to turn a reasonable situation into a winning one when Cook was unable to press home the advantage and India's last-wicket pair piled on the humiliation and frustration.

At a time when Ballance and Robson should have taken full advantage of the flat pitch and pedestrian bowling, they failed to dominate. Bell has the ability and temperament to take charge and has to bat at No. 3

This trend, which began in Australia, has now assumed dangerous proportions. There's no doubt it's having an effect on Cook's team-mates, who must be wondering if he has the imagination to inspire England when an extra effort is required.

Not only is this debilitating for the team, it's also putting a lot of pressure on the England hierarchy, who unwisely backed Cook's leadership at the expense of picking the best side.

England could be in deep trouble if things continue to go awry, but if they unearth a strong leader, pick the right type of players and stop searching for a team who are all best buddies, they could quickly become a force again. Knowing the conservatism that pervades English cricket I'm not expecting it to happen.

If India made a huge blunder in choosing Stuart Binny - a move that made less sense after he batted at No. 8 and hardly bowled - England were equally erroneous in constructing their batting order. To place Gary Ballance, a stiff, manufactured player, ahead of the fluent and dominant Ian Bell makes no sense at all. Sure, Ballance has done okay in his short career, but at a time when he and Sam Robson should have taken full advantage of the flat pitch and pedestrian bowling, they failed to dominate. Bell has the ability and temperament to take charge and has to bat at No. 3.

Many of England's players are suffering a Mitchell Johnson hangover and there's a worrying susceptibility against well-directed bouncers, even on a lifeless pitch. To have Ben Stokes, a player who showed his mettle in Australia, languishing at eight made as much sense as Ballance ahead of Bell.

As Cook's form slump continues, it's obvious his captaincy woes have invaded his batting. In trying to overcome a frailty outside off stump he has created more problems for himself by shuffling across the crease, making him more prone to the lbw dismissal and also to being bowled behind his legs. When confidence deserts a player and responsibility weighs heavily, it's amazing how often lady luck turns her back.

Despite Dhoni's strong start to the series this battle is going to be a tough one for India. However, whereas on the last tour India capitulated quickly, they have shown a lot of fight at Trent Bridge. No doubt this resilience has been bolstered by the fissures currently appearing in English cricket. If Dhoni is able to establish supremacy he needs to ensure he capitalises to the fullest. Picking the right combination will help.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist