Somewhere in the Mediterranean yesterday morning, on a luxury yacht cruising along the coast of Majorca, a portly, perma-tanned 44-year-old schoolboy permitted himself a self-congratulatory smile. The news from Headingley could hardly have been better.
Alastair Cook had survived for only 13 minutes, augmenting his meagre overnight score with a solitary scoring stroke, before he was dismissed in desultory fashion. Shane Warne’s policy of mental degradation had acquired further momentum.
Cook’s opportunity to put the Australian’s puerile criticism into perspective had been lost. The perfect scenario of a rehabilitative century on a day of soporific old-school international cricket remained unrealised.
It was left to Sam Robson, his opening partner, to seize the moment with his first Test century. England’s latest import, Australian-born to a British mother, seemed abashed by the achievement of scoring 127, and will surely face more searching examinations of form and technique.
The straw coloured pitch was as docile as a Labrador on Prozac. The Sri Lankan bowling attack contained all the menace of a rampaging mob of octogenarians from Harrogate. The paying punters hardly responded with the positivity the England captain purports to crave.
Long before tea, the exhibitionists on the Western Terrace, a motley collection of mock cyclists, superheroes and Dickie Bird fetishists, had turned their backs on play to concentrate on the creation of a beer snake, which writhed messily across scores of seats.
Cook, condemned to trial by isolation in the dressing room, felt every second of the longest day. He had no such idle interlude. Such is the sudden questioning of his status that his statistics were studied with the solemnity of a reading at a State funeral.
He has scored 585 runs in 23 innings at an average of 25.43 since his last Test century, against New Zealand at Headingley last summer. The natives are growing restless. They are increasingly unimpressed by his overall record of 25 hundreds, at an average of 46, which is the best of any current batsman under the age of 30.
So much for the certainty and soothing eloquence of the cricket scorebook. The quality and intensity of the public scrutiny to which Cook is subjected by his predecessors far outweighs that endured by his contemporaries in football and rugby union.
He knew what was coming. He had added only three runs when he felt for a delivery from Dhammika Prasad outside his off stump. The ball moved away and was taken at ankle height by Kumar Sangakkara at first slip. He was out for 17 when he needed to score 170.
A host of former England captains in the commentary box cleared their throats. Andrew Strauss, his immediate predecessor, spoke of the curse of hard hands in his technical tutorial. He suggested Cook was not letting the ball come to him. He was searching for it. Confidence was becoming an issue.
Geoff Boycott, God in God’s Own County, spoke of the open face of Cook’s bat as if it was a crime against humanity. He praised the planning and execution of modern bowling attacks, who, aware of the batsman’s previous issues with lbws, were happy to tempt him into snicking the ball into the slip cordon.
The talk is of Cook’s stiff front leg, rather than his stiff upper lip. Runs will make it easier for him to captain, and easier for him to live with himself. The batsman who once played the ball wonderfully late, and scored centuries with studied ease, is in there somewhere, most probably in the void between the analyst’s laptop and the labyrinth of his brain.
A captain cannot afford the luxury of constant self-examination, because there are others to worry about. There are decisions to make, a team to shape. The last thing Cook needs is a Punch and Judy Show, with Warne and his equally crass friend Kevin Pietersen pulling the strings.
He must envy Robson the simplicity of his ambition, and the luxury of his patience. A boyhood friend of Australian batsman David Warner, the Middlesex opener is attempting to succeed where Nick Compton, Joe Root and Michael Carberry have failed since Strauss’s retirement.
He is compact and understated, as Australian in terms of temperament as tripe and jellied eels. Like Gary Balance, who surprised everyone, including himself, by getting out for 74, he is an accumulator rather than entertainer. It takes all sorts.
Cook (pictured) has been earmarked as the leader of a new generation of players. They are expected to dispel the cynicism accumulated during England’s last cycle of success.
It still seems perverse to consider sacrificing a player in whom England have invested so much, emotionally and strategically. Cook deserves support, but it is essential he reverts to type, and wipes that smug smile off Warne’s face, sooner rather than later.