Cook's descent into private hell

Had an undertaker taken measurements of Alastair Cook as he made his way back to the pavilion, the signs could hardly have been more obvious: after another poor display in the field on the opening day and another poor display with the bat on the second, time is running out for England's captain.

Cook's failure at Lord's was familiar in every sense. Not just because it extended his run of low scores to the stage where they can no longer be ignored by an England management desperate for him to succeed, but for the manner of his dismissal. Cook, as so often, was caught behind after poking at one just outside off stump without moving his feet. He has now gone 26 innings without a century and averages 13.37 this calendar year. Those are figures that can no longer be ignored or excused.

The groan that rose from Lord's upon Cook's dismissal spoke volumes. It spoke of a crowd desperately willing Cook to succeed; it spoke of a crowd that understood how hard he is working, how much he is struggling and of their empathy for a decent man descending into his own private hell.

He had looked in better touch. He left the ball well. His defensive strokes all hit the middle of the bat and, in general, went straight back to the bowler. There was a sense that this might be his day.

And it is true that he has enjoyed little luck. While Gary Ballance benefited from a reprieve in the slips early in his century, Cook had no such fortune. And while the ball that struck his thigh pad at Trent Bridge might usually have glanced away for leg byes, it instead cannoned onto his leg stump.

But only fools and losers continually blame luck for their failings. Eventually you have to accept that if a result recurs often, there is an underlying reason.

It has not been unreasonable to keep faith with Cook until now. His long-term record remains good - though his average has dropped to a fraction over 45 - and he is, at 29, young enough to come again. But eventually, with the run of low scores growing longer, it appears ever more as if the England management are desperate for him to succeed as much so save their own face as anything else.

They staked everything on Cook. They sacked Kevin Pietersen and decided to rebuild upon the rock of Cook's run scoring. But perhaps due to the pressure that decision added, he has been unable to sustain the form required for a Test opening batsman. The management's faith and continuity is starting to look desperate rather than loyal and sensible. Just as it is becoming impossible to deny the deterioration in Matt Prior's keeping, so Cook's problems have become impossible to ignore.

While Cook is batting ever more like Mike Brearley - who, speaking on Test Match Special, questioned whether Cook would survive his current malaise - he is no nearer to captaining like him.

After an improved performance at Trent Bridge, he chased the game in the field on Thursday and suggested that all the criticism he has attracted had started to distort his thinking. Just when England needed to patiently persist on an old-fashioned line and length attack, they experimented with three men out on the hook and a round the wicket bouncer barrage. It was, by any standards, poor captaincy.

And eventually, with the batting failures accumulating and his captaincy not compensating, the reasons for persisting with Cook are wearing out. If England lose this match, a match in which they won a crucial toss, Cook's future will be hanging by a thread. We may well be in the end days now.

If and when the end comes for Cook, he might well reflect on the lack of support he has gained from his senior players. For various reasons - fitness mainly - Prior has been unable to provide the support he might have done in previous years, while James Anderson and Stuart Broad let him down with their bowling both at Headingley and in the first innings here. Ian Bell's lack of runs is bringing no respite, either.

Cook is now clinging to his position by the flimsiest of reasons: the lack of alternatives. Neither the candidates for replacement opening batsman or the opening position spring out. If they did, Cook would surely have gone by now.

The most obvious alternative as captain is Bell. He has captained, albeit on a part-time basis, with some success for Warwickshire. He showed himself to be an imaginative leader whose own game seemed to improve with the responsibility.

But not only is his own form a nagging worry - nobody doubts Bell's class but it is now 18 innings since he registered a Test century and, since the start of the Ashes series in Australia, he is averaging 27.53 - but there is some doubt as to whether he can replicate those leadership characteristics at this level.

While at county level Bell is something of a giant, respected by his peers and confident in the environment, most insiders talk of him in very different terms in the England set-up. He is seen more as a follower than a leader and there are doubts whether he could control other senior players as required.

Captaincy might well prove the making of him, but it would constitute a risk.

Joe Root also has his supporters. But just as his premature elevation to the opening spot threatened to derail his progress, so the burden of captaincy might prove unhelpful for a 23-year-old whose game is still in its development phase. He has little experience in the role - his one game as captain of Yorkshire earlier this season ended in Middlesex chasing 472 to win in the fourth innings for the loss of only three wickets - and to promote him now might risk spoiling one of the more exciting prospects in the English game.

Cook has one more chance in the second innings. But if he fails again and England lose the game, his days may be numbered. He will be batting for his future in the fourth innings at Lord's.