England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 4th day

New England, same mistakes

With Alastair Cook isolated and the deficiencies in his captaincy laid bare, the suggestion that English cricket is at a low point continues to gain credence

George Dobell at Headingley

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#politeenquiries: Will Cook resign or be sacked?

Might this count as a low ebb?

After the Ashes defeat in Australia, the ECB chairman, Giles Clarke, said it was "utter nonsense" to claim that England were at "some sort of massive low ebb".

Since then, though, little has gone right for England. They were embarrassed in the World T20 by Holland, they lost the ODI series (and the T20 match) against Sri Lanka and their new managing director, Paul Downton, has sometimes looked so out of his depth that it is hard to resist the temptation to throw him a pair of armbands.

And, as their bowlers were thrashed around Leeds by Sri Lanka's eighth-wicket pair, as their captain's grim run of form continued, as they allowed a game they had every chance to dominate slip away in front of a 'crowd' so small it should probably be called a 'sparse' and as their batsmen displayed the resilience of a papadam - Liam Plunkett's dismissal might be remembered as the worst shot by a nightwatchman in the history of Test cricket - it was hard to avoid any other conclusion than England had slipped not just to a low ebb, but to basement flat below one.

Ian Bell was bowled by one which nipped back, England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 4th day, June 23, 2014
Ian Bell's dismissal was another example of senior players failing to help out Alastair Cook in England's time of need © Getty Images

England have already gone seven Tests without a victory. But even if they do produce a miracle and prevail on the final day (and they might as well pray that a plague of unicorns prevents play), even if they pull off the largest successful fourth-innings run chase in their history, it should not obscure the deficiencies that have hurt them. And it should not obscure the deficiencies in the leadership of Alastair Cook.

It is not just the poor batting form or the uninspiring tactics that provoke such concerns. Yes, we know that he has now gone 24 innings without a Test century and that, since July 2013, he averages in the mid-20s. And we know that, as a tactician, he is more mouse than Strauss; more phoney than Dhoni. The decision to set spread fields in the opening overs of the day simply allowed Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews to settle in.

But we also know his long-term batting record is excellent and, given time, he should come again. And we know that, when he is batting well, he has the ability to unite his team and lead them to fine victories such as a series wins in India and an Ashes win at home. There are different ways to lead and Cook is not as hopeless as some would suggest.

The real concern is his inability to raise his team when required. Frustrated by his ineloquence, he appears unable to find the stirring phrases to rouse and renew in times of trouble. He is the type of captain who leads by example. And his current example is mediocrity.

More than that, though, he was the captain backed by the ECB when it was decided to drop Kevin Pietersen. He was the captain either unwilling or unable to accommodate the highest run-scorer in England's international history and, as a result, he has weakened his side and shouldered an unnecessary burden.

Any suggestion that he was unaffected by the relentless negativity towards him from high-profile critics such as Shane Warne and Piers Morgan was dashed when Cook snapped back the day before this match. It has clearly been on his mind.

But if Cook must take his share of responsibility for England's performance, a few of his senior players also need to reflect on the support they have offered him. Matt Prior has looked unrecognisable from the keeper who proved so reliable up until the end of 2013 and, in this match, has flapped like a seal and dropped like a stone.

For Sri Lanka to come in early summer and secure their first series win is a damning indictment of England's new era

James Anderson, impeccable for so long, bowled horribly short and wide in being out-performed by Dhammika Prasad. His first over with the second new ball did not demand a single stroke; his second was little better. Ian Bell was beaten through the gate, back when he should have been forward, while Stuart Broad was unable to summon any of the menace gained by his Sri Lanka counterparts. In an inexperienced side, these are the men who have to support Cook. On Monday, at least, they let Cook down. All those burned by the Ashes thrashing fell away under pressure.

What England cannot - must not - do is blame bad luck.

If you win the toss and decide to bowl first, you cannot complain if you end up batting fourth against a turning ball.

If you waste your two reviews on speculative lbw shouts - one where the ball was clearly going down the leg side - you cannot complain when an umpire misses a blatant outside edge off Shaminda Eranga before he has scored and there are no reviews remaining.

If you waste the new ball and squander more than half-a-dozen chances in the field, you cannot complain when Test batsmen punish you.

If you pass your opposition's score with only two wickets down but then lose 7 for 54, you cannot complain when the opposition fight their way back into the game.

And if you bowl your overs so slowly that you run out of time when the opposition are nine wickets down, you cannot complain when they hold on for a draw.

Sri Lanka have played well in this series, but England have been, to a large extent, the architects of their downfall.

There is, as ever, mitigation. This is an England side containing several inexperienced players; there were bound to be days like this as they learned their trade. Equally, in a two-match series, the effects of one poor day can be magnified. England have not been this bad for the other eight days. But overseas victories are hard to come by for any side and for Sri Lanka to come to the UK in early summer and secure their first series win, is not just a reward for fine cricket, but a damning indictment of England's new era.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by Jackie on (June 24, 2014, 19:56 GMT)

Bell, Prior, Anderson, Broad, should all be "helping" Cook. Is there anyone missing from that list? ie. The coach? Or has he disappeared from responsibility in the way that Flower did post Ashes? Moores seems not part of any low ebb although he would surely have claimed the new era if England had won. Actually England did nearly draw the game - so much for the premature sneers by Dobell and Kimber. As for Cook. He's captain. He should be leading the side by example or being a damn good captain. If he needs "helping" then he shouldn't be captain. Not sure why Balladeer thinks Bell is in the same mould as Cook re captaincy. Bell has always shown inventiveness and set attacking fields for Warwickshire. About as unlike as you can get. But would he be allowed to? Moores seems to be following the same pattern as Flower - advice by numbers. (Oh yes and no Plan B).

Posted by Dummy4 on (June 24, 2014, 15:52 GMT)

In a similar position, Mike Denness dropped himself (Ashes 1974-5, fourth test) and came back with a huge hundred. Next year, Denness had a poor first couple of tests, was dropped forever and replaced as captain by Tony Greig. To continue playing Cook is to risk a similar fate. England would do well to let him rest during the series against India.

Posted by Jonathan on (June 24, 2014, 13:53 GMT)

It's easy to forget that Cook has scored a first-class "daddy hundred" (150+) this season. Granted, it was for Essex, against a second-division attack, but he made it and he was so very happy about it.

He wasn't captain at the time. James Foster was.

I doubt that Ian Bell would necessarily be a more attacking captain than Cooky: they'd probably be in more or less the same mould. But looking at the stats., I'd rather have an in-form Cook than an in-form Bell.

Posted by Jon on (June 24, 2014, 11:41 GMT)

If we are to lose here, it may (most probably not though) make us learn something. We need to accept 2 years of being the whipping boys on the international circuit, with the players we have available this is inevitable. If we can start to mould a side that learns on the way and will become a decent outfit in 2016 onwars it will be worthwhile. We are at a crossraods IMO, we can ignore fact, the way we play the game is outdated and will not succeed any more. This notion that we can play without a spinner is ridiculous. We must find a spinner, we cannot ignore this issue, it is the single most important issue plauging English cricket. We must not stop thinking about it until it is sorted.

Posted by Jon on (June 24, 2014, 11:34 GMT)

This series has been really an eye opener in terms of how little vision we have going forward. If we look at the series in context we have not really tried to achieve anything. We produce an absolute road at Lord's where batting was easy and we excused a 4 man pace attack because the pitch wouldn't spin (which in truth it didn't). Our attack bowled short and despite a push in the final session a draw was a fair result. What did we learn from that game? Nothing IMO. We learnt Cook is still conservative (batting to let Ballance score 100 rather than have 40 mins end of day 4) and we learnt that when the ball doesn't swing we have no attack. We don't have the pace to bowl short, nor the spin option to bowl a side out day 5. Again nothing new to any fan of the game. In this game Cook hid our batting away from a potentially tricky first session and we capitulated as soon as our SL bowlers found their rythm. Again we have known England only bat well against bad bowling for 5 years.

Posted by Peter on (June 24, 2014, 10:43 GMT)

Apart from Cook's terrible use of his bowling resources, the sight of him keeping the field back to allow Matthews an easy single to reach 100 sums up how poor his captaincy is. That was totally inexcusable, and shows how bereft he is of ideas.

England showing faith in their players worked for a long time, but the selectors have to get ruthless now. The new boys have all shown encouraging signs, and it's the senior players who have to take responsibility for such a poor display.

Stokes, Buttler, and a specialist spinner have to be considered for the series against India, and the time has come for the selectors to make clear that nobody in the team is safe from being dropped.

If Cook doesn't resign after this match, then the selectors must sack him. He's far too valuable as a batsman, and it requires drastic action to help him score runs again.

Even with so few candidates, there surely can't be any arguments in favour of Cook contnuing as skipper.

Posted by Dummy4 on (June 24, 2014, 10:31 GMT)

Besides South Africa, my homeland, there is only one country in the world who shoots itself in the foot on a regular basis and that country is sadly England. The debacle with Pietersen and Boycott once being dropped after a huge score( for batting too slowly) are just two examples.

Posted by Neil on (June 24, 2014, 10:25 GMT)

Losing across all format at home to SL has to rank as the poorest performance in the last 20 years. At least the Aussies have a strong side, and it was on their patch. Cooks captaincy apart, its the selections and performance of senior players for me, who need to face the music - Bell, Anderson, Prior and Broad. We know about Cooks form, but what about Bell? Bell, for example, seems to avoid the flak (probably due to the home Ashes last year), but he's averaged over 40 just twice in the last 10 series (2 years) with many returns in 20s or lower. It's not that Bell is a poor batsman, but these returns aren't good enough for our supposed best batsman.

Posted by Dummy4 on (June 24, 2014, 9:38 GMT)

I'm not sure England are at a "low ebb" yet. The tide may still be going out. To go from an almost invincible position (ahead with only 2 first innings wickets down) to the brink of defeat in 2 and a bit days is just awful (frankly, the sort of thing West Indies have done lately). Sri Lanka's 8th wicket pair scored more than England's last 13 wickets have done.

Batting, bowling, fielding, captaincy: all awful. The first sign of a side lacking confidence is usually when the fielding goes. Too many "unsackables" in the England dressing room (Cook, Prior, Anderson, Broad) not pulling their weight.

I think George is right to say Cook is not a "stirring speech" captain, he's one who leads by example. When he does that (eg in India) England do well. When he doesn't (the last year), they fall away. It's far from clear whether Cook has simply lost form or whether the cares of captaincy are getting to him. From his reaction to Warne and others, I'd say the latter.

Posted by James on (June 24, 2014, 9:15 GMT)

Well, it's a right shambles. Looks like a real lack of team morale, and that has to fall on the shoulders of the captain. I like Cook, but he's either going to have to have a massive turnaround of self-belief and leadership skills, or he's gone. England had this game in the bag, and let it slip. Obviously Graham Swann's absence made a huge difference. But why serve up soft tracks for the SLs? Very generous indeed of the English. Maybe they are hoping for the same when they travel to the sub-continent next. Good luck with that one.

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