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India vs England: Alastair Cook needs time to contemplate future as captain following painful series defeat

The Independent logo The Independent 13-12-2016 Derek Pringle
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Heavy defeat for England, not just in the fourth Test against India but in the series overall, inevitably puts pressure on the captain, Alastair Cook, to consider his future.

Inevitably, emotions run amok after defeat and when Cook was interviewed by Sky’s Ian Ward straight after England’s last wicket had fallen, he said that Strauss had asked him to captain for this series and that there would be the usual debrief afterwards. The fact that he stressed the word “this” suggests that a continuation with the current status quo is not guaranteed.

It is not the first time Cook will have contemplated the leadership (after such long service it will be him who is most likely call time on it rather than Andrew Strauss, the managing director of England cricket). But if Cook is wobbling, and he has done so before when England lost to India at Lord’s two and a half years ago, he should heed the words of Bobby Charlton, the England and Manchester United footballing legend.

Charlton retired from first team football after a trying season. Five months later, after a decent break, he regretted his decision, but felt it would look silly to rescind it. His advice to Cook would be to see how he feels after a decent rest before making any momentous decisions on his career.

After the next Test in Chennai, Cook will not have another Test match until July, an unprecedented gap for his career and a long time to contemplate his options ahead of next summer’s Tests and the winter’s Ashes in Australia that follow.

He will, though, have much to consider. Although defeat was expected, England have been trounced by India, their cricket declining rapidly as the pressure bit. The last defeat in Mumbai, by an innings and innings and 36 runs after making 400 in their first innings, will have been a particularly humiliating jolt to their pride.

What Cook must consider is how culpable he has been for that and the other defeats and whether, and this is a slightly separate issue, he retains the same desire, passion and energy for the job that he had when first appointed four years ago.

Only Cook can judge the second issue but everyone else will have a view on whether his captaincy, which has been under scrutiny this series, contributed to England’s woes here in India.

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For a captain with a record 58 Tests experience, Cook is still not that surefooted in his decision-making. His past experiences in India should have made him attuned to the hazards of playing there, which makes his decision to be so cautious in the first Test at Rajkot, where England outplayed India comprehensively for the only time in the series, so bewildering. 

Cook decided to make the game there ultra-safe before trying to win it, eventually setting India 307 in 54 overs. They had them in trouble at six down but ran out of time. Had they left themselves 70 overs to dismiss them, they would probably have won, which would have rocked India’s confidence and placed a completely different complexion on the series. England may have been expected to lose in India, an expectation which has come to pass, but that was a huge opportunity to upset the form book and Cook, perhaps surprised by his team’s strong showing there, did not take it.

Then there was the selection of three spinners in three of the four Tests, a decision that betrayed Cook’s lack of confidence in his two main tweakers, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. Before the tour to India and to Bangladesh beforehand, Cook, who has a strong input on squad selection without officially being a selector, asked the panel for the best most experienced spinner in England. By general consensus Gareth Batty at the ripe old age of 38 was that man.

That he was found wanting, after an eight year gap between Tests, is not surprising, just that he should have been given more than one Test in a row to find his feet.

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England’s spinners are not as talented as India’s, for whom Ravichandran Ashwin was outstanding. Yet they held their own over much of the first three Tests until this last one in Mumbai, when, reduced from a trio to a duo, the pressure of delivering on a turning pitch, after England had posted a decent first innings score, overcame them. 

Their apprehension, especially from Rashid, was not helped when Cook, who’d never shown great faith in him previously, gave him only five overs at the end of the morning session on day three. As snubs go, given the amount the pitch was turning by then, it was as a public humiliation and far from ideal for someone of Rashid’s fragile confidence.

The life cycle of an England cricket captain tends to be four to five years and Cook has now reached that point. He is the best judge of whether his players still respond to him as well as they once did but it was interesting that when he left the field the other day in Mumbai, and Joe Root took over, that Root immediately made things happen by putting himself on and taking two quick wickets. In times of crisis little things like that can assume big meaning and accelerate change.

Root is the only realistic candidate to assume the captaincy from Cook, but if England’s current Test captain is considering resignation then he should heed Charlton’s advice and only make the decision after he has taken a break.

Then he will know that his choice will have been reasoned and and not forced on him by the swirling emotions that follow defeats of this scale.

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