Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni should send his Sri Lankan counterpart Angelo Mathews a crate of his favourite tipple immediately. And as a further gesture of gratitude, the BCCI, with the newfound wealth they’ll inherit following the recent ICC “big three” deal, should offer to pay off all the Sri Lankan board’s debt. That’s how big a favour the Sri Lankans have done India on the eve of their Test series in England. Not only did Sri Lanka beat England in their recently completed series, they prised open serious cracks in the host’s “brave new world”. The biggest of those fissures is right at the top: Alastair Cook’s captaincy has gone from bad in Australia to worse in England.
Part of a selector’s job is to recognise players who might be buoyed by the extra responsibility of leadership and those who are likely to be burdened by it. I’d put Cook in the second category - and his lean recent batting returns seem to confirm this theory. As such, he should never have been awarded the captaincy. However, there weren’t many other candidates at the time of Andrew Strauss’ retirement (unless you count Kevin Pietersen and the England hierarchy obviously didn’t), so Cook was anointed by default. As a captain you have to admit to mistakes in judgement and quickly set about correcting them. By not admitting to flaws and addressing them quickly so he’s not constantly being dismissed in the same manner, a player isn’t going far. It’s the same for selectors. If you make a mistake, own up to it and then correct it quickly so it doesn’t become like a rolling stone gathering more and more moss.
I first harboured doubts about Cook’s captaincy when the look of fear appeared in his eyes as Australia closed in on an unlikely victory at Trent Bridge in 2013. He got lucky on that occasion as Jimmy Anderson rose to the challenge and extracted him from the mire. However, his luck ran out in Australia, and the loss at Headingley this week displayed all the hallmarks of England’s problems during the Ashes series Down Under. Cook is not an instinctive captain and he’s also ultra-conservative. I’d say the same about Strauss, except he had some qualities Cook doesn’t possess. He had “presence” and he was decisive in his moves. He also led a side that was playing confidently and had all its stars at the height of their powers rather than on the wane. Nevertheless, Cook’s indecisiveness - which leads to interminable between-overs conferences with experienced players - has a deflating effect on the team.
In nearly every Test in Australia, England forged a winning position with the ball but couldn’t finish the job by clinching victory. The same thing happened at Headingley. The constant failure to convert a good position leads to players losing confidence in a captain. It also prompts rudderless performances like England produced during the match-turning partnership between Mathews and Rangana Herath. A captain can learn a lot from his mistakes but other aspects of the job are inherent; unfortunately for Cook and England, how to correct his main deficiencies isn’t teachable.
The India coach Duncan Fletcher supported Cook’s retention and in doing so invoked the woes of Australian captain Mark Taylor in 1997. That’s a poor comparison. Taylor was a fine, attacking and instinctive captain before he hit his bad patch with the bat. Importantly, Taylor’s captaincy remained highly efficient even when his bat failed him. Anyway, Taylor wasn’t out of form in 1997, according to former Australia batsman Doug Walters; he was “batting too long”. This was Walters’ summation of the problem when asked: “Think back to Greg Chappell when he was out of form,” said Doug with a straight face, “he made ducks. Taylor keeps scoring 11, 13, 17. He’s batting too long and everyone can see he’s struggling.” Walters’ twisted logic probably applies to Cook’s current batting slump. And it’s no surprise Fletcher pushed for Cook’s retention. It’s a smart ploy - any opponent would prefer to face a rudderless England piloted by a lifeless leader.
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