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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 11, 2013, 20:38 GMT

    Test cricket is a marathon, not a sprint. We had an excellent opening pair,building strong foundations, in Cook and Nick Compton. Together, they posted 6 stands of over 50, including 3 of over a hundred and and one of over 200. How many 50 partnerships have Cook and Root posted? No wonder Cook bats slowly when he cannot rely on his 2 and 3. We are getting bad starts and needing to be rescued by Bell and Peterson because of the selectors' bloody-minded determination to get Bairstow into the team come hell or high water. Root is obviously not ready to open for England. We should bring back a man who has made 2 hundreds and a 50 in 9 Tests, not to mention 2 50s against the Australians in tour matches. The selectors should admit they got it wrong and restore Nick Compton. But they are as rigid in their thinking as Cook is in his captaincy.

  • Firdaus on August 11, 2013, 8:08 GMT

    I agree as well as disagree with this article. There was nothing wrong with Cook's approach, and he was well set up for a big 100 before Bird bowled that absolute ripper of a delivery. However, it's unfair to demand the same levels of willpower and determination from the rest of the players, particularly Prior or Pietersen. Each batsmen should have batted in the way they found natural and comfortable, though without throwing their wicket away (Bell).

  • Biso on August 11, 2013, 4:27 GMT

    @Humdrum. Agree with your comment that England did well while India and Australia had aging players / were in transition. Aussies are closing the gap even though their batting is yet to become solid. At the moment, Aussies are certainly struggling with their batting while their bowling looks good and they have the fast bowling stock to do better. They definitely need spinners. At this point the results of the last two tests actually rest on the Aussie batting. If they bat well Australia will win both the tests.

  • Biso on August 11, 2013, 4:20 GMT

    I do not agree with the article. One cook is enough. Maybe one more batsman with the same approach after Cook is out. If you do not score runs , you are doomed. Batting is a team effort. You need both Cook and Pietersen's. I would prefer a Pietersen blinder in difficult conditions ( although the risk is always there).

  • parjanya on August 10, 2013, 12:13 GMT

    Right now, the english selectors seem more clueless than anybody else.

  • Oli on August 10, 2013, 9:57 GMT

    The English plan is not right. Don't get me wrong, I'm English, and I want to see us doing well, but the plan is not right. I agree with Dobell's sentiment about Compton-gate, he was dropped because he couldn't score quickly enough; but then it seems all the batsmen have been told to play a grinding test innings of yesteryear, when it's not all batsmen's natural game. Yes, you have to be watchful and play yourself in, but by trying NOT to score you can bat yourself out of form. To put it another way, to score your natural way can bat yourself into form. England's batsmen are picked for different reasons: some for their defensive play, some their attacking play. And, though you do have to play in a particular way in specific situations, yesterday - the opening day of a test match - they all seemed very uncomfortable batting in a way that appeared unnatural to all but 'la Cucaracha Cook'.

  • Dummy4 on August 10, 2013, 9:46 GMT

    George, the point about Cook's performance is that when you bat like that, the opposition don't need to take your wicket. Cook's scoring rate wasn't hurting them in the least, in fact all it was doing was putting pressure on the other batsmen. I would have understood Cook's approach if England had been put in on an awkward pitch against a rampant attack, but they won the toss and chose to bat, on the first day on a good pitch. It was almost as if he'd made up his mind to play that way before he even went out there. You're right of course, there's no hurry as such, but if you set the tone with a big block and end up only 238 on after day one, the opposition still have a great opportunity. These players all play ODI cricket which has taught them how to pinch singles, manoeuvre the ball, rotate the strike and yet Cook chose against all this yesterday, clearly not from Old Trafford, and England paid the price.

  • StJohn on August 10, 2013, 9:22 GMT

    Admittedly Compton had a poor home series against NZ, but the decision to drop him so soon after he had a good away series in NZ was inconsistent with the more recent mantra of giving players a decent run in the team to prove themselves. I think Compton should return for the 5th Test to open with Cook. I like Bairstow, but Compton has performed better in an England Test shirt so I'd drop Root down the order to take Bairstow's place. Compton's perhaps more defensive approach has been criticised at a time when stickability and Boycott-like (or Boycott-lite?!) innings building qualities have, paradoxically, been sorely missed (and missing).

  • Dummy4 on August 10, 2013, 9:16 GMT

    Batting too slowly is just as risky as batting too quickly. A batsmen can paint themselves, and their team into a corner and allow the opposition bowlers to keep coming at them, if the bowlers are patient enough. If England where playing the likes of Mitchell Johnson then the runs will eventually come, but here we had Siddle and Bird and too a lesser extent Harris who are very fit and work very hard. Eventually something had to give and it was the English who lost their cool and Lyons of all people cashed in. In the end England lost 9 wickets and if they had batted more positively they could have had a respectable 280 - 300 runs on the board but instead they have 240, with a opposition attack feeling very confident against them.

  • Señor on August 10, 2013, 8:32 GMT

    Wow... Only took 500 words to finally say 'well bowled Australia'.