Being England cricket captain is a privilege that not many people achieve. And for the selected few, it is a tremendous opportunity to write their name into English cricketing history. Yet there are drawbacks to the job and one of those is that whenever the side loses, the captain is the easiest scapegoat of them all. This is something Alastair Cook is experiencing right now.
England were never expected to win this series in India. Cook’s men had just come off a humiliating defeat in Dhaka and people were writing them off before they set foot on the field. Perhaps, it is the hope that kills. Such were the positives that England offered in Rajkot, there was a possibility that this series would be a lot closer than people thought.
However, it has not turned that way. Heavy defeats Visakhapatnam, Mohali and now Mumbai have left England 3-0 down and with much to ponder. And as is the case with damaging series defeats such as the latest in Mumbai, plenty of the blame has been towards Cook as captain. There have even been calls for him to resign as skipper.
Admittedly, 2016 has been a poor year, by England’s standards, in the Test arena. If the visitors lose in Chennai, it will be their eighth Test loss this year, a record as bad as some of the darker periods of English cricket in 1993, 1986 and 1984. The stats do not look pretty and ultimately, it is a record that hangs on Cook’s shoulders.
Yet overreactions are common ground when it comes to cricket, especially English cricket, and it is important to emphasise the three main reasons why England have lost this series.
The first reason is not enough application to the batting. This England side embrace the ‘positive’ approach – something that has brought them reasonable success since the arrival of Trevor Bayliss – but there have been moments in this series when a more pragmatic style was required. Mohali instantly comes to mind.
After winning the toss on a wicket lacking any significant spin for the first two days, this was England’s chance to post a big total, put India under real pressure and show a strong reaction to the defeat in Vizag. But for some reason, England moved away from applying themselves, as they did in Rajkot, and decided to play too positive, resulting in several players giving their wicket way far too cheaply. From the moment Cook’s men scored an insufficient 283 on that wicket, the Test was well on the way to being lost.
There is a difference between positivity and recklessness. In Tests, being positive is looking to rotate the strike and find the gaps by playing relatively risk-free cricket. Virat Kohli, along with the likes of Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, did this perfectly and benefited because of it. Very rarely did we see reverse-sweeps, a high risk shot that England have insisted on playing, and slog sweeps, but instead they focused on accumulation through controlled strokes.
Ultimately, England’s batsmen played reckless cricket in aiming to smash India’s spinners into the stands before they were even set. The fact that England have not shown application and given themselves enough time at the start to bat for long periods is down to poor game management. This was not down to Cook’s captaincy.
The second area that has cost England in this series has been poor selection. Batting wise, England brought Gary Ballance out to India, even though he averaged just six in Bangladesh. In addition, the visitors have kept Ben Duckett in the squad after the second Test, even though his technical struggles against Ashwin made him unlikely to play for the rest of the series. England could have sent both batsmen to the Lions in Dubai and given themselves another option by bringing out another player, such as Sam Billings, who would have been more likely to play a part in the series.
In the bowling department, England have consistently failed to find the right balance to their attack. Third spinners Zafar Ansari and Gareth Batty were used with little effect and England even played a fourth seamer, Jake Ball, on a turning pitch in Mumbai, to many people’s bemusement. Even more confusing was the selection of Liam Dawson, who took just 20 wickets in Division One last season, over Jack Leach (65 Division One wickets in 2016), as a replacement for the injured Ansari. The cavalcade of poor selections was not down to Cook’s captaincy either.
The final area that has contributed to England’s downfall in this series have been the missed chances in the field. In Visakhapatnam, Adil Rashid dropped a crucial catch, albeit a tough one, off Virat Kohli, who was on 56. It was a vital moment in the match and would have been a key breakthrough. Instead, Kohli went on to make 167 – a major contribution to India winning the Test.
It was a similar case in Mumbai. If Jonny Bairstow had not missed a stumping off Murali Vijay (on 45, made 136), Adil Rashid had taken a return catch offered by Kohli (on 68, scored 235) and Joe Root had grasped an edge by Jayant Yadav (on eight, made 104), England would have saved 354 runs. Those missed chances, along with Kohli’s brilliance, made the difference – something also not down to Cook’s captaincy.
So overall, those are the three key reasons why England have lost this series. And it is important to understand this before the finger is pointed at Cook. This is a man who has given huge amounts of effort and success to English cricket, has plenty more to offer and deserves respect.
And who is to guarantee that Cook’s eventual successor, Joe Root, will enjoy more success as the leader of the side? Moreover, there is always the possibility that the job could have a deleterious effect on the 25-year-old’s increasingly influential batting. Perhaps it is too early to hand the reigns over to Root just yet. The long break between the final game at Chennai and the first Test of the summer in July offers Cook the chance for a prolonged rest and a recharge of the batteries. And drawing on 31-year-old’s experience and leadership is something that will be key to England finding the winning formula again.
Blame on the losing team captain is inevitable. Yet England did not lose this series because of poor captaincy from Cook, but instead from profligate batting, poor team selection and missed chances in the field. The sooner this is realised, the better for both Cook and for English cricket.