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Alastair Cook has got used to feeling of the axe hanging over him. Only his team-mates can save England now
July 20, 2014
At around about midday, Alastair Cook sprinted back towards the most famous pavilion in the game. His aim was to catch the skier offered by Stuart Binny from the bowling of Moeen Ali. The ball reached its apex and appeared to hang, as if it were an axe waiting to fall upon a head. Cook, surely aware of the many judgemental eyes upon him, made some ground in this time and was able to steady himself a little. If there was panic in his eyes, it was not evident for they were hidden by the wrap-around shades that allow him to occupy Planet Al without intrusion.
Still moving at pace, his head held a steady position and his hands opened to receive the ball. The timing was perfect. The ball nestled soft and safe. The members rose to acclaim the leader. Joe Root arrived for a hug - Joe rarely misses out on a hug. Their boyish smiles were of relief. Wickets were falling. England might win.
An hour later Al had the field spread. He was praying for another catch, somewhere, anywhere. Strange things happen in the big city. Ravindra Jadeja had morphed into Adam Gilchrist. The England captain was going through what every international captain went through between 1999 and 2008, the near ten-year period during which the Gilchrist counterattack brought global terror. Only Andrew Flintoff and Michael Vaughan mastered the finest No. 7 of them all and then it was brief, that summer of 2005, when Fred swung the ball at the speed of light from around the wicket and Gilly was flummoxed.
Honestly, Jadeja played a mesmerising hand. The game had missed some magic, Jadeja had us in raptures. He smashed his mortal enemy - James Anderson, but you knew that - back over his bonce a few times. With audacity and outrage he drove and pulled and flicked and cut and squirted. He danced down and hung back. He used his bat as if it were the sword of Zorro.
And Al spread. This time it was hard to blame him. This last year alone, the last three wickets on the opposing scorecard have cost England close to a 100 runs on average. Ouch.
With another delightful contribution from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India added 99 for the eighth wicket at a run a ball. Ouch. Planet Al was ready to bat but he had other things to occupy his mind. The game is slipping away for goodness sake, how do we get these chaps out? And then he got a break. Jadeja pulled at a ball a little full and it flew high over his head and towards the pavilion. Guess who was chasing?
The wicketkeeper was chasing too but Al willed him away. Hearts were in mouths. Again the ball hung, again the axe...
And again the ball landed safe and soft. Two stinkers, both beautifully taken. Hooray for Ally, England and St George.
Soon the shades were off and the helmet was on. It was 3.15 in the afternoon and England needed 319 to win. The captain had to fly that flag. "Unto the breach, dear friends" and bang, a square cut for four to settle the nerves. In his pomp of 18 months ago, Cook would feast on such challenges. He loves to deny and defy. His stubbornness has worked best in the face of unlikely odds and these were the unlikeliest odds. Only once had such a score been made to win a Test at Lord's and that by Gordon Greenidge and West Indies on a belting pitch 30 years ago.
The India seamers did not make the short-wide ball mistake again. They pitched nice and full and a tad off stump and Cook left well alone. "I will not be tempted, I will not be tricked." He made it to tea though had the agony, the ignominy, he might say, of standing alongside the umpire as a finger was raised against Sam Robson. Leg before wicket? Hardly, ump. Cook must have been spitting. We saw the replays. Hawk-Eye quite liked it. A cruel decision, ump, but not a wrong one after all. Ask Hawk-Eye, the god of all things.
The spinner came on. Guess who? Jadeja, of course, and he bowled some exploding bombs. Cook was hit on the gloves, the hip, the arm, the pad, the thigh pad. Occasionally the bat became involved and singles and twos started to build a tally. A long reach brought safer forward blocks. While the spin was smothered, the hope could be heard in the urgency of the Lord's murmur. Perhaps, perhaps...
Then the England captain played the shot of the knock. From a back-of-a-length off-stump ball by Bhuvneshwar, Cook stood tall and with a perfectly straight bat punched it past mid-off for four. Bravo! This was 4.15pm. Nerves were settling. More ones and two were scored. Edges did their bit. The spinners were seen off. MS Dhoni switched his men around. Fielders in funny places. Bowlers doing funny things. He brought Ishant Sharma back. Ishant switched to around the wicket, Fred's great angle in 2005.
Ishant bowled a gem. A ball so perfect that Cook was drawn to it, a moth to the flame. Length, line, both spot on. Cook's defence was imperfect. He has a flaw in his technique. It is less a loss of form than the ruthless exposure of a flaw. The ball found the edge of the bat and this time, instead of flying out of harm's way, it flew into the Dhoni gloves. Mr Dhoni does not miss the ones that matter. Cook watched its flight in despair. His head dropped. The moment seemed to last forever. India were triumphant but Cook was rooted to the spot. The crowd could not be sure, not until he began the long walk home.
Oh, captain, the long walk home. Back towards those members he went, forlorn. Earlier, twice, they had applauded the excellence of his work. This time there was a ripple but it was more in sympathy and respect for a decent man beaten by the ravages of an unforgiving game.
The blood had drained from his face. The pain was clear and present. Even the callous could not help but feel for him. Admirably, Cook gives this world all that he has. The fates have turned against him for now. This particular fight was over. The battle now belongs to others. Only they can save England's face.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UKFeeds: Mark Nicholas
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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