Eng v Aus, 4th Investec Test, Chester-le-Street, 1st day August 9, 2013

England's self-inflicted wounds

England's batsmen did not appear to know whether to stick or twist on the opening day, but should have followed the lead of their captain

After the apocalypse, when the first few survivors emerge from their bunkers and caves, it seems safe to assume they will find only two types of creature unscathed: a certain type of hardy insect and, marking his guard and waiting for his next ball, Alastair Cook.

There is more than something of the dung beetle about Cook. There are times when he makes his job appear hideously unattractive, when he appears unequal to the struggle, when his batting is so grindingly unattractive that you want to hide your children's eyes from it. He is as much cockroach Cook as captain Cook.

But Cook has always been more interested in substance than style. And despite the fact that he was clearly not at his best on the first day of this Test, he provided an example to his team-mates in determination and persistence.

Cook's innings was torturous. He batted as if his feet were set in concrete and as if the bat handle were laced with barbwire. He never looked comfortable and barely timed anything sweetly.

But he survived. He survived for almost four hours. He fought and he concentrated and he refused to give it away. He saw the shine off the ball and the energy out of the bowlers. He put so great a price on his wicket that it took an excellent delivery, a peach of a ball that pitched outside off and nipped back, to finally prise him out.

The point that Cook understands better than any of his team-mates is that there is no hurry. There are times in Test cricket when it is necessary to score quickly and seize the initiative. But generally, particularly as an opening batsman, the priority is survival and accumulation. The runs follow. They may come slowly, but they come a lot less slowly than they will if you're back in the dressing room ruing your dismissal.

There is no need to try to steal the initiative with aggressive batting. It can be gained with more certainty and more security by stealth. It can be gained by refusing to give the opposition a chance and by gradually wearing them down and batting them out of the game. It doesn't have to be gained the Kevin Pietersen way. Draws, at least draws where the weather has not intervened, have become almost an anachronism in Test cricket in England and Cook understands that the game still allows the time to build an innings over a day or more.

But while Cook made Australia work for his wicket, some of his colleagues gave theirs away as if contributing to a charity. While much of the day was characterised by grim defiance, several of the batsmen - Cook apart - fell to aggressive strokes or playing at deliveries they would have been better leaving alone. To lose four wickets on the first day of a Test to a finger spinner on a pitch offering little or no turn speaks volumes for the self inflicted nature of England's problems.

There was little balance to their approach. Jonny Bairstow, surely desperately in need of a strong second innings performance to retain his place, went scoreless for over an hour at one stage then he squandered that resistance by falling to an unnecessary sweep. While Jonathan Trott batted beautifully to help England to a promising platform of 107 for 1, the flick he attempted across the line that resulted in his dismissal was unnecessary.

The same word - unnecessary - may be used to describe Pietersen's stroke, pushing at a non-turning off-break angled across him and edging to the keeper, or, perhaps the nadir of the innings, Ian Bell's decision to skip down the wicket four balls after tea in an attempt to hit over the top and lofting a catch to mid off. Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad fell to strokes so gormless that it is tempting to try to sell them a time share. It was all so unnecessary.

England's problem was not that they blocked too much for too long; it was they did not do it for long enough. They seemed so uncomfortable with the policy of defence, so full of the need to assert themselves, that they perished in an unnecessary attempt to break the shackles. They should have had the mental strength to know that ending the day on 160 for 1 was quite adequate.

There is an irony here. Earlier this summer, Nick Compton was dropped, in part, due to a perceived inability to score with the requisite impetus. Despite having registered two centuries in his previous five Tests, England replaced him with men who were deemed more positive. Even in the two games prior to his dropping, Compton seemed uncomfortable with his natural game, like a man forced to drive too fast in dangerous conditions. He did not play his natural game.

This sent out a message to England's other batsmen. It told them, possibly subconsciously, that they had to be more assertive. That they had to push on. That their run-rate mattered. It was, in retrospect, a significant error on the part of the England management.

The problem actually stems back further than that. Since they reached the No. 1 Test ranking, England have lacked the patience to build formidable Test totals. Whether that is due to sated hunger or whether other sides have worked out methods to bowl to them is debatable.

Certainly England's struggles here owed much to the pressure built by Australia's bowlers. While the seamers did not use the new ball quite as well as they might have done - Cook and Joe Root were barely forced to play - the ability to 'bowl dry' and to build pressure on England was executed brilliantly by a very well disinclined attack.

But England had done the hard work. They had seen off the new ball, the bowlers at their freshest and the pitch at its most lively. They had built the foundations. All of which just goes to make their largely self-inflicted collapse all the more galling.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo