Cook on right side of Sliding Doors
In the film Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the part of Helen Quilley in two parallel universes. In one we see her life unfold after she boards an underground train, in the other we follow her story having missed the same train. Perhaps this is how we all live, swirling around in a vat of ifs and buts that decide our destiny. Certainly, Alastair Cook has benefited from a change in his fortunes that was not immediately obvious after England's horrendous defeat at Lord's.
In Southampton, just six days later, Cook won the toss and chose to bat. The weather was set fair and hot, the pitch was dry and pale brown. His own batting was in crisis, beset by little technical flaws and bereft of confidence. His captaincy was the subject of both scrutiny and vitriol. When he had vowed to fight on during the Lord's post-match press conference, many a former player-turned-pundit said the selectors should take the neutered bull by its horns and cast it aside. The time had come, they said, for a change. Tellingly, the same critics had no obvious replacement in mind. But change for change's sake was preferable to the status quo.
Pictures were taken of Cook in the nets that week: day after day, dawn till dusk. The more Peter Moores threw balls at him, the more eagerly Cook hit them back. He was working on his alignment; on aiming the balls back from whence they came, and on playing forward with more commitment. He is smart enough to know that talent hides in funny places. He figured you just have to keep looking. The problem with batting is the variables. If the bowler pitches middle and hits off, you are knackered. So you need luck, along with a strong mind.
Thankfully, India were without Ishant Sharma, their best bowler. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is skilful but has no great pace. Mohammed Shami is lively but not one to keep you up at night. Pankaj Singh - "my dear old Pankaj", Henry Blofeld might say over tea at the CCI in Mumbai - is an honest fast-medium deck-hitter. Not more, not less. On a good pitch, this was an attack to savour for a batsman with 25 Test hundreds on his CV. But even Bradman needed a bit of luck. Ask Eric Hollies.
Cook missed a few and nicked a few and generally scratched his way to 15. Then dear old Pankaj found the edge of his bat. The ball flew at knee height to third slip where, almost in slow motion, Ravindra Jadeja dropped it. Cook went on to get 95. It was not his best innings, not close, but it was his most important. England went on to score 569. Then they bowled India out for 330. Cook chose not to enforce the follow-on, once again flying in the face of critics who slammed his inflexibility and lack of foresight. England went on to win the game comfortably.
Imagine the doors sliding and Cook losing that toss. Think of the confident Indians batting first and Virat Kohli, amongst others, making hay in the Southampton sunshine. Think of England and the captain facing massive scoreboard pressure. Imagine dear old Pankaj finding the edge of Cook's bat and Jadeja clinging on. After that, Pankaj takes five, the others chip in and England play the match in deficit.
But, because England have a resilient bunch of mainly fresh faces and minds, the game is saved. Cook battles as if his life, rather than just his honour, depends upon it. He makes 50-odd and the remainder all play their part in ensuring India are only one up going to Old Trafford. The Indian press say MS Dhoni declared too late and that continuing to leave R Ashwin on the sidelines - particularly with these EngIish pitches being so dry during the July heatwave - is a further indication of a personal issue that betrays Dhoni's otherwise estimable leadership.
Imagine that these whispers, Cook's 50 and England's escape all combine to keep spirits high. The same squad, with the same captain go to Old Trafford.
History tells us that at Old Trafford, Dhoni won the toss and batted. Cook admitted he would have done the same. James Anderson had been cleared of misconduct charges and Stuart Broad, suffering chronic knee trouble, was declared fit to play. The pitch had real pace and in the sultry, overcast conditions the ball zipped around both in the air and off the pitch. After 40 minutes, India were 8 for 4. There is no way back from 8 for 4. Unless it rains. And it did. It rained so hard and for so long that, had India shown even a glimpse of courage and determination on the third afternoon, the fourth Test would have been saved. But they didn't. Suddenly, England were 2-1 up.
But imagine if Cook had won that toss and chosen to bat first at Old Trafford. Think of Bhuvneshwar swinging the ball around and Pankaj sprinting in on the back of wickets at the Ageas Bowl. Granted, it is unlikely England would have been 8 for 4, simply because it is an unlikely score, but they might have been bowled out for something around 200. And imagine if, during that innings, the captain had holed out to deep square leg playing the hook shot, as he did in real time. Think of the headlines!
On the second morning, India would have batted in the brighter conditions, with the pitch dry. Kohli might have enjoyed the pace in it, rather than feared the ball's darting movement. Imagine the England attack with Anderson banned for four matches and Broad on crutches after a knee operation. The hope had been to play Liam Plunkett on the hardest pitch in the land but his ankle was not up to it. Imagine Steven Finn recalled but letting nerves get the better of him. Think of Cook, Anderson-less and Broad-less, eventually throwing the ball to Moeen Ali who, because of these sliding doors, does not have the Southampton six-wicket haul behind him. Imagine the carefree Indians toying with these gentle offbreaks. Think of Kohli licking his lips.
Imagine England's rain dance. Imagine England leaving Old Trafford one down with one to play.
And now imagine losing the toss at The Oval. Is there any game where conditions so cruelly favour one team above the other, and simply through the fall of the coin? Of course, India do not have an attack so proficient in the conditions but had Dhoni's team the chance to bowl first they would surely have made something of it.
As it was, Anderson and Broad were playing, the toss was won and the game had swung (literally and metaphorically) in England's favour by lunch. India's helplessness in the face of the moving ball was a sight in itself. Dhoni's brilliance saved face but probably not the game. On Saturday, England will bat in better weather on a pitch that is fast drying out and will receive another flattening from the heavy roller in the morning.
Had the doors slid differently, it might have been the India opening batsmen who were not out overnight and the India team who begin the day playing with the confidence of being one up in the series.
It is a fine thread by which the careers of cricketers and the results of matches hang. Towards the end of the day, Cook appeared to be plum lbw but the umpire's finger stayed down. Television replays confirmed his luck. Imagine England one down, Cook out of form and luck and now dismissed by India utilising the Decision Review System. He would be laying his head on the pillow tonight wondering if his time as England captain was all but over.
As it is, he marches on, relishing the thought of the moment when he lifts the Pataudi Trophy and sticks it up the doubters who were calling for someone else in the job less than a month ago. So was it three coin tosses and a dropped catch? Sliding doors? Or has Cook's resilience and belief after Lord's earned him an unbeaten score overnight and a shot at glory over the next four days?
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK