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No supermen; no magic: Cook rues England's errors

It was hard to avoid a sense of deja-vu as Alastair Cook accepted that England's batting had let them down in Mohali

The England captain Alastair Cook adjusts his fielders, India v England, 3rd Test, Mohali, 2nd day, November 27, 2016

Alastair Cook is looking for a new direction  •  AFP

It was hard to avoid a sense of deja-vu as Alastair Cook accepted that England's batting had let them down in Mohali.
He was quite right, of course. By failing to take advantage of winning the toss here, England surrendered their best opportunity to control the game. On a surface that Cook described as "400 par" - and it was at least that - England instead succumbed to 283 all out and surrendered the pitch at its best to an India side who were determined to utilise it.
Whereas four England batsmen had scored centuries (three in the first innings, one in the second) on what Cook described as a similar surface in Rajkot, here Jonny Bairstow was the only man to make 50 in the first innings.
"You need a big score on a wicket like that," Cook said, "and we weren't good enough to make one. Jonny Bairstow made a good 80, but we need hundreds. The pitch wasn't too different to Rajkot, maybe slightly harder to score on, but it was 400 par and we were below it. We just weren't good enough."
While Cook's candour is welcome, England have now lost four of their most recent six Tests with batting failures a recurring theme. If the collapses in Dhaka (where they lost 10 wickets for 63 runs) and Visakhapatnam (where they lost 10 for 63) were especially eye-catching, the batting at The Oval (England were 110 for 5 on the first day having won the toss) and here (where they were 87 for 4 before lunch on the first day) was equally culpable.
And while they seem to have found the answer to their problem at the top of the order in Haseeb Hameed, Moeen Ali was not convincing at No. 4 (or No. 3 in the second innings) and Hameed is now unavailable for the rest of the series. Moeen and Jos Buttler both picked out the fielder after trying to hit over the top in the second innings - victims of good bowling, for sure, but also a lack of patience - underlining the suspicion that England were still trying to find a way to blend their naturally positive approach with the discipline required for Test cricket.
Their struggles against spin are familiar, too. While the pitches in this series have deteriorated and turned a little, there has been none of the extravagant assistance that some anticipated. Instead, on perfectly reasonable surfaces, England have struggled to deal with an accurate, disciplined spin attack who have exposed some flawed techniques and uncertain temperaments.
Cook was criticised for his "they're no supermen" comments after the Visag Test (some even suggested he was "taunting" India), but he came very close to repeating those remarks here.
"There were not magic balls," he said of England's second innings struggle. "Maybe Jonny Bairstow was the only one that was a good piece of bowling, but apart from that there wasn't a huge amount misbehaving from the pitch. It was good accurate bowling, as you expect from India in these conditions, but not unplayable. You can talk all you want but the top order have to go and deliver."
While the phrase "the only one that was a good piece of bowling" in unfortunate - and almost certainly a reflection of a lack of eloquence more than a lack of grace - there is a valid point in there somewhere. Cook, for example, missed a 46 mph delivery that turned about one degree. Moeen and Buttler fell to sucker punches. It was soft cricket that was thrown into its proper perspective by a 19-year-old with a badly broken finger. His teammates were, quite rightly, proud of his performance: one or two of them might have felt it contrasted with their own.
Ultimately, professional players have to take responsibility for the way they play. They have to make their choices and live by the results. But these are the times that coaches also earn their keep and there have been times of late when it has been unclear what England's approach is meant to be: are they blocking their way to safety - as they attempted in Visag - or trying to counter-attack to success, as they showed, in fits and starts, here. Both options are reasonable, but a lack of confidence in their defence has been a feature of several of these batting failures. England have usually preferred aggressive players to defensive ones - consider the selections of Ben Duckett, for example - and here picked an excellent limited-overs players (Buttler) who had played just one first-class game in the previous year. There is not a lot of evidence to suggest this aggressive approach is working.
Perhaps the brief holiday they will have now is well-timed. Several of the squad will travel to Dubai for a few days, with no formal training planned. "It will mentally give us a break from cricket," Cook said. "We can come back more refreshed."
Cook also admitted England may have erred in their selection for Mohali. The presence of a third spinner - and a second off-spinner, in particular - was superfluous, with Cook suggesting the option of a fourth seamer would have been more beneficial.
"All of us probably misread the pitch," Cook said. "we thought it was dry and would spin more. If we had known what we do now, we would have gone four seamers two spinners. The seamers were always in the game with reverse and the way we bash length, we can control the scoring rate very well."
That does not necessarily mean that England will play four seamers in Mumbai. As well as injury concerns over seamers Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, England hope to have Zafar Ansari, the left-arm spinner, available for selection again and expect that surface may provide more assistance to spinners. The last time England played a Test there, in 2012, Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann shared 19 wickets between them.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo