South Africa v England, 4th Test, Centurion, 5th day January 26, 2016

Cook puts England top order on a warning

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Butcher: Top order deserve Sri Lanka chance

Alastair Cook admitted England had been left with "a lot of unanswered questions" at the end of their Test tour of South Africa.

It was not so much England losing the final Test that worried Cook. They had already wrapped up the series and were, he thought, a little lacking in intensity as a result.

The worry, for Cook, was that even when England won, they were overly reliant upon a few key players and that most of the holes that existed in the line-up before the series, remained by its end.

While the middle-order of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow all scored heavily, the others members of the top seven struggled. Alex Hales, with an average of 17.00, James Taylor, with an average of 26.57, and Nick Compton, with an average of 30.62, all failed to take the opportunity to cement their places and may, as a consequence, require a strong start to the county season to retain their places in the side. Cook, too, scored just one half-century and averaged a modest 23.

For a team that has aspirations to reach No. 1 in the Test rankings, it was reminder that they have a long way to go. And it left Cook accepting that none of Hales, Compton or Taylor had "totally convinced" him.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions in our top seven batting," Cook said. "There are certainly places up for grabs.

"The output we've had in this series hasn't been good enough if we're trying to get to No1 in the world, which is the ultimate aim.

"As a batting unit we've relied too heavily on Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow. Absolutely we've got room for improvement."

"At the end of the day, results matter and your end column of runs are absolutely vital. So to say they've totally convinced me would be wrong."

Cook also suggested that Bairstow had "a serious amount of work" to do to improve his keeping after a series in which he was unable to take seven chances. But, while accepting that England "can't afford" him to make as many mistakes, Cook did off-set his criticism by reflecting that he had "come of age" as a Test batsman and compared his keeping to that of Matt Prior, who improved hugely after an uncertain start to become a highly reliable performer for England.

"Jonny has been outstanding with the bat in this series," Cook said. "He's kind of come of age and proved he can bat at this level.

"He knows he has a huge amount of work to do on his keeping. We can't afford to keep putting down those chances that he put down in this series.

"It's no coincidence the two games we've won we've caught everything and the draw and the loss we dropped far too many chances. That is a big area of concern for the side but there's no reason we can't put it right - it just takes a hell of a lot of hard work.

"But I remember a certain Matt Prior having a tough series in Sri Lanka. All he did was work and work and work and amazingly no-one ever talked about his keeping.

"He was an outstanding keeper, but for the first 20 Test matches people doubted him. He put in a serious amount of work and Jonny has that ahead of him. He is the first to know that."

Prior was actually dropped for about 12 months after that series in Sri Lanka. But, after returning to Sussex and working hard, returned to the side with a much stronger game. It may be that several of this England side face a similar period back in the domestic game.

"Those guys have got to continue working hard and make sure that, when selection comes round for Sri Lanka, they have scored a bucket load of runs for their counties," Cook said.

The other concern for Cook was his side's habit of losing the final match in a series. It has now happened in seven of the last eight series and, while some of those matches have occurred in dead rubbers, it has certainly not always been the case. Indeed, in 2015, England lost final Tests to West Indies, New Zealand and Pakistan when the series was very much still live.

"It's not the way we wanted to end the tour," Cook said. "This whole five days we haven't quite been as good as we have been in the other three games.

"I can't quite put my finger on why. We spoke about how we wanted to unbeaten. We just haven't been good enough in this game.

"This week has shown us that, if you're not absolutely 100% on it, mentally in particular, then you just can't compete at the level you need to.

"We've produced a very limp batting performance. There's no excuse for that. It's disappointing for the English supporters to see seven wickets in just over an hour but overall I can't fault the way the lads have gone about this tour. They've played some brilliant cricket.

"A lot of time, under pressure we produce outstanding performances. This is just a blip and incredibly frustrating.

"The dead rubber issue is one I don't mind having if we've just won the series, but it just shows we've just still not managed to put a whole series together. I thought we would have made a really big step forward if we had played four good Tests here. We couldn't quite manage to do it.

"It just shows how much work we've still got to do as a side. We never pretended we were the finished article. We've got areas we've got to get better at. You have to give the guys a little bit of leeway. But, for us to be at number one, we do need to start gutsing some of these games out."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • 3Lions_RIP on January 28, 2016, 10:17 GMT

    Look who's talking??? We have a captain and a very reliable (LOL) opening batsman who brings 10 years of experience at International cricket at an average of 25 or whereabouts in the recent years. And to top it all, this guy is commenting on the newcomers who are failing instead of trying to motivating them. Cook is probably the only batsman who has the weakness to get caught at slips or the leg slips. His strengths are very limited. He's probably very upset on losing his deputy, the Great English Dud, Ian Bell and is doing everything within in grasp to bring him back. ECB would be wise to bring in anyone but Bell. David Beckham can be a better cricketer than Bell. We should stick with Compton until the Ashes at least. He has toured India before and the experience can be handy. Hales and Taylor should get a home series against SL and from there the selection can be taken based on performance. Please ECB, whatever, you do, don't bring that dud (Bell) back.

  • YorkshirePudding on January 28, 2016, 8:27 GMT

    @VSherman, really Ali was tried as an opener, it failed, with an average of 17, at 6 he averaged 21, at 8 and 9 hes averaged 31 and 36 respectively.

    7 is also the only spot he's scored a Ton.

  • YorkshirePudding on January 28, 2016, 8:24 GMT

    @landl47, I agree with you about Lees, he is potentially the future and early season runs could give him an opportunity to break into the test squad, but there are limited other options, unless we stick with Hales, or go back to Lyth or Robson.

    The issue is the short term, do we stick with Hales for the 2 SL tests in late May or do we bite the bullet, and put Compton to open, while the next opener shows his hand, I would be tempted to move Root to 3, Taylor to 4, and then have Ballance/Vince/Hales at 5.

    As there is less likely to be ball movement when they come in so can play a more natural game, with Stokes and Bairstow at 6 and 7, that's going to be a pretty impressive middle order, lots of stroke makers and players that can counter attack.

    It would be fantastic if Bairstow could work with Bruce French in the pre-season, or secure the services of Read in the pre-season.

  • VSherman on January 28, 2016, 2:25 GMT

    Why is Moen Ali is batting at No.7 or 8 in the England team? Moen Ali has proven time and again that he belongs to the higher order. Can Cook answer this question please?

  • mikeyp147 on January 28, 2016, 1:05 GMT

    Yorkshire-86m, presumably you're either on a wind-up or you're a time traveller from 2010. Plunkett, Onions and Tremlett?? I'll give you few clues as to why these three aren't really in the frame - see if you can work out which applies to whom. One is injured, one has retired and one hasn't played a Test for nearly 4 years and is widely regarded to have lost his 'nip' after injury. Only one of these has a chance of playing for England again.

  • Cpt.Meanster on January 27, 2016, 21:23 GMT

    @JG204: You are missing the point. Last time, England won because of two major factors: English spinners were better than their Indian counterparts; English batsmen played well compared to Team India which had some old timers on their last legs (Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid etc). This time, India has better batsmen and bowlers head to head compared to England in those conditions. It's really a no brainer that England has no chance of winning a single test on that tour. The best they can do would be to achieve a draw in one of the tests. Ashwin, Jadeja, Mishra are much more dangerous now and Virat Kohli is a different captain to MSD. England will need to be seriously good to emulate their win from 2012.

  • Jose...P on January 27, 2016, 17:01 GMT

    The only clear cut case is that of Alex Hales. Everyone else deserves a chance in the forthcoming home test series, before deciding one way or the other.

    The last/lost test in Centurion had all the symptoms of the dead rubber syndrome. So, it may be a bit too much to give heavy weight for evidence from that. Of course, that itself is an undesirable disease, which needs to be cured. No doubt.

    I don't know how to put Hale' case! To use an English colloquialism, Hales seems to know his onions well for the short formats. But just doesn't cut the mustard for tests.

    So, the search for Cook's opening partner continues. Hope, it doesn't stretch, up to a time when England have to look for Cook's own successor in the opening slot.

  • yorkshire-86 on January 27, 2016, 16:32 GMT

    Robson and Lyth should be given all the Lions games so the coaches can work on their problems outside off stump, with a view to bringing one or both of them back into the main team for the summer season in 2017. This is probably when the grizzled old veteran Compton will retire, who until then can take Hales's place at the top, and bring Ballance who has been our 2nd best performing number 3 of the last ten years apart form Trott, back into the team. The biggest worry with the batting is not the form of Hales, its the repeated fails of Cook himself. The main problem however is the bowling. Of the attack in the last test, 3 of them (including the main fulcrum of the attack, the spinner) are picked more for thier batting, one was coming back from injury and only 60% fit, and the fifth, Broad, is world class one day and mediocre the next. Plunkett, Onions and Tremlett should have been in the squad from day one, rather than 'bowlers who can bat' like the hapless Jordan, Patel and Woakes

  • Big_Maxy_Walker on January 27, 2016, 15:37 GMT

    Taylor and Compton should've have a chance to bat in home conditions in tests. Gary ballance needs a second chance but he isn't a 3. I'd have cook, Compton, Taylor, root, balance, stokes, Bairstow. Bairstow was fine as a keeper and dropped a couple. This will happen to anyone. Since he took the gloves his batting has much improved. Captain cook should remember he had a poor series and dropped vital catches on his own. Cook was given much time to get back into form so the other players should at least be given the home tests against Sri Lanka

  • templar51 on January 27, 2016, 14:59 GMT

    The captain is a leader , who should inspire his team and not blurt out comments which would be better left in the dressing-room. I do not see these qualities in Cook.

    Hales looks as though he is only a limited overs player - as does Taylor. Compton looks as though he has forgotten why he carries a bat.

    Focusing on Bairstow would not have helped his (Bstw) confidence. Yes , catches went down - but many of these were quite difficult. Cook seems not to have noticed that Bairstow took 19 catches - 15 in the last 2 tests - (3.5 innings). As to the comment about 'runs scored after a drop' .... this also applies to all fielders.

    There is a lot of comment on this page about picking a 'specialist' keeper. Well, there isn't one - w/k are expected to bat. Buttler was tried - and dropped. Analysis of his keeping would probably show similar statistics to Bairstow. Other names have , barely , featured in County cricket and any replacement would be back to the drawing board.

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