Mark Nicholas
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Former Hampshire batsman; host of Channel 9's cricket coverage

England v India, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 1st day

Cook on right side of Sliding Doors

England appear to be cruising towards a 3-1 series victory - but things could have been very different were it not for three coin tosses and a dropped catch

Mark Nicholas at The Oval

August 15, 2014

Comments: 8 | Text size: A | A

Alastair Cook had plenty of opportunities to hit on the leg side, England v India, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 1st day, August 15, 2014
Alastair Cook finished the day unbeaten on 24... at least in this universe © PA Photos
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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.

 
 
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 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

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Posted by Rake1 on (August 16, 2014, 6:02 GMT)

Luck does play a part is sports as it famously did in the 2005-06 Ashes series where England won the 2 test matches in which McGrath was injured and won important tosses in the series. In this series India fed on diets of T20 & ODI didn't have the stamina to compete in a 5 test match series. Anyway the only class act this Indian side has is Dhoni. The rest have been made to look very ordinary by England especially by Anderson & Broad.

Posted by   on (August 16, 2014, 4:29 GMT)

Abhinav Mukund could have been groomed as a left handed Dravid for Future Indian test team. if only the Indian think tank had a vision of what a test batsman must play like. He was a third opener's choice when bereft with injuries to Sehwag and Gambhir. He has been opening with M.Vijay since he started playing at the domestic level. In the tour game against Northants in the last England tour of 2011, he scored a century 113 of 421 balls in the total of 352 with the playing eleven comprising of Gambhir, Sehwag, Laxman, Raina and Dhoni. He has played a total of 5 test matches during the last WI and Eng tour of 2011 with thre different opening partners. But he was dropped after playing three test against England to make way for Sehwag returning from injury.

Posted by   on (August 16, 2014, 2:56 GMT)

Another big loss on the way to India . Go England best wishes from Sri lanka

Posted by   on (August 16, 2014, 2:30 GMT)

Indian Test Cricket is moving down the hill. The Australian tour follows later and after having seen the last two Indian debacles would use it to uplift their Test ratings. Would India go for replacements to their iconic players for the WI domestic series, as the moving ball technique will not be severely tested? If yes, then when would we align ourselves to the demands on technique and skills of playing overseas? Will India call for players who have the discipline, technique and gumption and if so are their any such players around or they are all now focused on getting an IPL Contract? While flips of coin and the sliding doors would slide, can we alt least have the right process for selection of test players than of picking good IPL performers, as was the case of Gambhir, for test match cricket? Would a score of 3 of 56 balls as opener a case of enough gumption for a true opener facing a barrage of bouncers? Do we recognize such a small score in test cricketer as talent?l

Posted by crickketlover on (August 15, 2014, 23:27 GMT)

If this was a two test series as that of SL vs England and also SA vs SL, India would have won the series in England and Cook would have been in big trouble!

Posted by Madpashcrickers on (August 15, 2014, 22:20 GMT)

I can't help thinking that India have made the classic mistake of current touring sides of not playing any cricket between tests - ok it makes the tour even longer and in some ways more arduous but if your batsmen are struggling for form they need time in the middle in a reasonably competitive but non-test match game with the pressure off a little bit. Net practice is all well and good but it just isn't the same as batting or bowling in a game.

Posted by R_U_4_REAL_NICK on (August 15, 2014, 21:01 GMT)

The fact that Dhoni, despite once again having to stroll out within the first 20 overs of the match, came out and batted so well means that there should be no excuses from the Indians about the luck of the toss, state of the pitch, weather conditions etc. The Indian batsmen were simply clueless against great swing bowling, and did not have the patience or experience to hang in there. Dhoni is criticised a lot for having a an unorthodox technique/mindset, and yet he played this knock exactly like the other batsmen should have done: careful and patient at first; put away the bad balls only; and once in/set, throw everything at the odd playable ball and attack later in your innings. DRS could have saved Kohli, and had Cook yet again back in the hutch for a very low score. But no... we can't even have that in this series can we. Indian bowlers have to come out tomorrow and give it their all. Game is far from over.

Posted by tests_the_best on (August 15, 2014, 20:30 GMT)

A different sort of article than those of Mr Dobell who tends to go overboard in praising the team. The author actually acknowledges that luck played a part in the proceedings.

But that does not take away the fact that India have indeed played horrible cricket. Even if the 1st morning debacles can be explained, the 2nd innings collapse at Old Trafford was abominable to say the least. And some credit for English bowlers who exploited the helpful conditions better than what Indian bowlers would have.

Yet the fact still remains that if India had won the toss, things might have been different. In fact, this test as well as Old Trafford & Lords had lot of things in common for the first morning including Cook winning the toss and bowling. Only difference being at Lord's after being 145 for 7, Rahane's rearguard century along with B Kumar's support got India the advantage. No such partnerships on the first morning of Old Trafford and this test means India is staring at yet another defeat.

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Mark Nicholas A prolific and stylish middle-order batsman for Hampshire, Mark Nicholas was unlucky never to have played for England, but after captaining his county to four major trophies he made his reputation as a presenter, commentator and columnist. Named the UK Sports Presenter of the Year in 2001 and 2005 by the Royal Television Society, he has commentated all over the world, from the World Cup in the West Indies to the Indian Premier League. He now hosts the cricket coverage for Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in England.

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