For all the resolve of Alastair Cook to carry on regardless, common sense should prevail in the interests of the man and his team.
It gives no pleasure to write it, but the tap on the shoulder for Alastair Cook should come. The cruellest cut would also be the kindest cut, as it would be in this fine cricketer’s best interests, so that he can find a way to score runs and enjoy his cricket again.
It is unlikely to happen, given the effusive endorsement of Peter Moores, the head coach, in the aftermath of the second Test, given how much faith the ECB has placed in Cook’s powers of leadership, and given his stubbornly defiant attitude, reiterated again after this latest defeat. It would be a huge loss of face for all concerned to change direction now.
But, the reality is that the time has come. England have failed to win any of their past ten Test matches, their worst run of form for more than 20 years, since August 1992-93, a run of games that culminated in Graham Gooch’s resignation.
They have lost seven out of the past nine Tests. Cook has not scored a Test hundred for 27 innings, either, an horrendous run for a man who, not so long ago, reeled off hundreds for fun. More than that, this defeat was the worst of any that Cook’s team have suffered since the start of the Ashes in Australia. Forget Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, and Headingley, this was the nadir. At Lord’s they were granted the kind of conditions they have lobbied for all summer and this against a team who had not won away from home in 16 Tests before this one, and who, before this series, did not possess a batsman who had played in England. Given that, and the advantage conferred by the toss, a 95-run defeat was shocking.
It is said that there is no alternative to Cook, but that is no reason to stay in the job. There is always an alternative — Ian Bell, Joe Root, Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan are names that would be worthy of close scrutiny — and, more than that, people can surprise you when given extra authority and responsibility. England lose more than they gain by having an out-of-form Cook leading the side. England’s world-class players are thin on the ground, and Cook is one of those. It must be incredibly draining for him right now, and, in that sense, you can only admire his heroic willingness to shoulder the burden, but it needs someone from outside the England bubble to tell him that it is counterproductive.
Batting is not coming easily, and he is not a natural leader of men, so both parts of his game require huge reserves of mental energy. It is hard to see that changing any time soon, so the problems will not miraculously disappear.
Whether his form will immediately return should he be relieved of the burden of captaincy is impossible to say. Batting is a mixture of the technical and the mental, and both are suspect right now. Given the immense amount of credit in the bank conferred by 25 Test hundreds and more than 8,000 Test runs, he deserves a chance to show that it is the mental baggage of captaincy that is weighing him down more than his suspect footwork to balls pitched on a full length. He should be given a chance to find his form at the top of the order for England, not Essex.
The other significant decision concerning Matt Prior has been taken out of the selectors’ hands. As a wonderful servant of English cricket, as a bristling heartbeat of what was a fine England team, and the kind of cricketer that any captain would be proud to have in his side, it was right that the decision came from Prior himself. If not, the selectors would have had to have been strong enough to make the call. Again, it gives no pleasure to write it, but the time had come.
That much had become clear, despite the selectors’ determination at the start of the season that Prior’s standing as a senior player was necessary in helping to bed down this new-look England team. He has looked very suspect against the short ball, which has been really worrying against seamers from India and Sri Lanka that, while worthy, are short of the class and pace that Australia will bring to England next summer.
That fallibility came to the fore on the final day at Lord’s again, when he fell into the leg trap because of a lack of confidence in his being able to duck or sway out of the way.
More than that, his wicketkeeping has become costly. Although many of the pitches this summer have been difficult for wicketkeepers, Prior has missed too many catches for anybody’s liking, especially chances to his right, to which he has found it difficult to move given the injuries to his right achilles and right thigh.
It is a cricketer’s worst nightmare when your body fails you. Prior’s has, with the result that he cannot practise and train as he once did, and has not been able to come into this international summer with the requisite form under his belt.
A word of caution should be sounded about Jos Buttler, who is not the finished article, but if this summer has shown anything, it is that young, fresh minds and bodies can be trusted in a way that tired, scarred minds and bodies cannot.