Like a don clinging on to a falling empire, Alastair Cook is scrambling to keep hold of England’s one-day captaincy, his position becoming increasingly untenable. A prolonged period of abject performances from both Cook the captain, and Cook the batsman, have left even the most fervent optimists fretting with just 11 weeks to go until the World Cup begins.
Another pitiful effort against Sri Lanka at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo displayed just how far behind England are in one-day international cricket. In a reduced game of 45 overs per side, Moeen Ali was not to come to the rescue this time, as they were skittled meekly for 185 with 12 balls to spare. Sri Lanka pranced towards the target for the loss of only two wickets, Kumar Sangakkara (67*) and Mahela Jayawardene (77*) sharing a classy, effortless, unbeaten partnership of 149, to bring victory inside 35 overs.
Cook looked phlegmatic in the field, his bowlers unable to provide salvation, but it wasn’t the fault of the bowlers, the batsmen had failed them yet again. Exposed and posing few threats, the Sri Lankans slayed them with consummate ease, like they did almost four years ago in a World Cup quarter-final at the same ground – only that day Sri Lanka did not surrender even one wicket. Barring a few adjustments to the team sheet – Andrew Strauss was the unnecessary clogging captain then – very little has changed. England’s batters are still not positive enough, hence the team does not score enough. This is 2014, not 2004. 250 is far too few, alas, 300 is now chased regularly in the sub-continent.
COOK THE BATSMAN
This all conveniently brings me back to Cook. The success of the best ODI teams has been built on aggression, not conservatism. Almost 20 years ago at the 1996 World Cup, Sanath Jayasuriya pioneered the powerplay assault, taking full advantage of the fielding restrictions in place during the opening phase of the innings. Sri Lanka, the perennial underdogs, won the tournament. Other countries caught on to the tactic, Virender Sehwag, Adam Gilchrist, and Chris Gayle to name but a few adopting the blazing opener role. With the par score growing year upon year, it can be argued that nowadays both openers need to play in this mould.
Apart from Marcus Trescothick, England have never had that blazing opener so sought after. But the future doesn’t have to be bleak. Moeen’s hundred the other day briefly showed a glimpse of the future, while Alex Hales’ exploits in Twenty20 cricket have hinted at a potentially deadly duo at the top. None of this however can be achieved with Cook. If there is still a position for the more sedate opener who anchors the innings, he would still not the man to fill it.
Unfortunately, his failures are currently the only consistency in his game. His 16 ODI innings this year have brought a mere 436 runs at an average of only 29, with a high score of just 56. In fact in all formats, he has now played 55 international innings without reaching three figures. Perhaps more tellingly than those statistics however, is the speed in which he has scored those runs. His strike rate during this period is a stodgy 71 – that’s 4.3 runs an over in layman’s terms. So in addition to a run of poor scores, Cook has been chewing up deliveries in the crucial powerplay overs for no benefit to the side. Presumably his strategy is to lay a base, before accelerating later in the innings. I would suggest he has had ample opportunities to enact that plan, it has not worked, nor is it showing signs that it will.
The excuses for Cook’s form have been parroted out by himself and the management over the past 12 months continuously, they are now tiresome. We have been told he is seeing the ball well in the nets, and that it is only a matter of time before he translates it into runs. Well, we are still waiting Alastair, international runs are not made in the nets. The latest dismissal – a slog sweep to the fielder at deep square leg with his side in peril at 37 for 2 – showed a fuzzy mind, unsure of how to approach the situation, culminating in a rash stroke. If not a rash stroke, it has more often than not been a case of poor footwork. Ultimately, however he gets out, it is rarely due to bad luck.
COOK THE CAPTAIN
Cook’s captaincy does not warrant his place in the XI either. England have won just one of their last seven ODI series against Test playing nations – a 2-1 victory over a West Indies in similar disarray back in March. The strategy of building an innings, conserving wickets, and accelerating at the end is not conducive to consistently posting 300, nor is it a match winner when chasing a target. For one, England’s specialist batsmen have rarely stuck around long enough to build a platform, and inevitably Jos Buttler and Ravi Bopara have far too often found themselves battling in vain to track down a required run rate of nigh on 10 an over late in the closing overs.
The solution? Trialling Hales and Moeen as an opening pairing should be high on the agenda, and a welcome start. With still five matches remaining in the current series, followed by a tri-series in Australia, England have time to experiment and bed in a new option. There is nothing to lose. World Cup expectations are low, with the pragmatic predicting another ignominious early exit under the current formula.
So a final plea to the England and Wales Cricket Board. Valiantly you have tried, but it is not to be. Our World Cup preparations are in ruins. The least that can be done to salvage the wreckage is to bring in Alex Hales to open and play explosively, without constraints. We must say farewell to Captain Cook, for his first name is not James. The route to the promised land, he knows not.