Match Analysis

Cook form leaves England in chaos

England's biggest problem ahead of the fast-approaching World Cup is the form of Cook and it becomes more acute each time a member of the ECB hierarchy launches into an impassioned defence of the captain

After several near-misses Alastair Cook fell for 32, Sri Lanka v England, 7th ODI, Colombo, December 16, 2014

After several near-misses Alastair Cook fell for 32  •  Getty Images

England finished this tour much as they began it, attempting in vain to chase a target that was beyond their ken. Moeen Ali's transcendental 119 in the first Colombo ODI promised that England would push Sri Lanka hard but they ended the series as pushovers.
With Sri Lanka decisively 4-2 ahead and a carnival atmosphere prevailing at a packed Premadasa for the final home appearances of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, there was little chance of stiff-backed, tie-wearing England upsetting the party. They might as well have been asked to go up to Negombo Lagoon and catch their own crabs.
At one point, England's final innings of the series could have been viewed as little more than a competitive net for Alastair Cook. Having survived an lbw appeal from his first ball, been dropped by Jayawardene on 1 and then edged between keeper and slip on 21, you began to wonder if this might be the dirty, lucky innings he needed. Then, having made 32, he nicked another one to slip. He lingered in the forlorn hope that the catch might not have been taken cleanly before heading off to the dressing room one last time.
Paul Downton opined in an interview on Monday that Cook would make runs "one day", although the way he said it made the prospect sound about as imminent as lunar colonisation. England might need reminding that tomorrow never comes.
How would the curate pick the positives out of this particular egg? Two heavy defeats at the business end of the series have dulled the sense that England were beginning to make progress, however arduous. Joe Root's third 50-plus score made him comfortably England's best batsman, quelling any doubt about his suitability for one-day cricket, but the rest of the top order found consistency harder to come by.
Given a brief to buckle his swash at opener, Moeen came off twice and three times was out inside two overs, including first ball here, which was perhaps the sort of role many expected Alex Hales to perform beforehand. Moeen's maiden ODI hundred was also the third fastest by an Englishman and he followed that up with a 29-ball fifty in England's Hambantota victory; his impact in both innings was breathtaking.
As an opener who can also bowl ten overs, Moeen brings utility as well as felicity to the side. Moeen bowled more overs than anyone else in the series; by contrast, Ravi Bopara was rarely turned to and was left out of the final match of having previously earned a promotion to No. 5.
Bopara remains something of an enigma but England's biggest problem ahead of the fast-approaching World Cup is the form of Cook and it becomes more acute each time a member of the ECB hierarchy launches into an impassioned defence of the captain. Their second-biggest problem is that the most obvious alternative to lead the side in Cook's stead, Eoin Morgan, is enduring an even worse time of it.
The success of James Taylor, who made 90 and 68 in his first two innings at No. 3, was a shaft of light through the darkness, however, while Jos Buttler's one significant contribution with the bat once again proved a match-winner. His keeping deteriorated somewhat over the seven matches but he remains a player of thrilling possibility.
A callow attack, in which Steven Finn and James Tredwell were the most experienced bowlers, was always likely to be up against it but there were some significant gains. The losses were largely measured in wides, with England's eventual tally for the tour an eye-watering 71. Sri Lanka, by contrast, conceded 28.
Chris Woakes finished as the leading wicket-taker on either side, just ahead of the irrepressible Tillakaratne Dilshan, while Chris Jordan returned strongly after losing his place during the India series. They will provide competition for the No. 8 spot and suggest England's pace options will look healthy in Australia and New Zealand, when James Anderson and Stuart Broad are expected to be fit again.
Conceivably England's first-choice World Cup XI will include Woakes and Jordan at the expense of Finn, who continued to be down on pace. These were sapping conditions for quick bowlers and Finn has had a tough road back but five wickets at 43.80 was a mediocre analysis.
The two players who appear to have flagged most in the hot hot heat of Sri Lanka are Harry Gurney and Ben Stokes. Gurney was left to roll off down the corridor unattended after wicketless appearances in the opening two matches but got another chance in Colombo, removing Jayawardene with a long hop that he slapped to fine leg. The left-arm option is attractive but Gurney's figures have become increasingly ugly.
Stokes is the most frustrating case, though he has been picked up and absent-mindedly put down somewhere else more often than most TV remotes. No wonder he looks a little lost. He seems wasted batting at No. 8 and bowling fourth change - but returns of 8-0-85-0 and 22 runs from two innings do not make much of a case for promotion.
His World Cup chances will rest on whether England decide to take two spare batsmen. Ian Bell has not played since the second ODI, while Hales' scores of 27, 0 and 7 were underwhelming even when taking into account that he twice batted at No. 3 rather than as an opener. If Bell were to miss out, having been moved down the order after two years averaging in the mid-40s - a period when Cook's figure has been closer to 30 - and then dropped altogether, it would be extremely rough on him. Hales' absence might not provoke the outcry that would have been expected a month ago.
England have been presented with some hard lessons on this tour, by a team that had just undergone a whitewashing at the hands of India. It is not too late to start learning but the fear is they will continue getting schooled for some time yet.

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick