The firing squad features willing volunteers. Their weapons are locked and loaded and there is little inclination to offer the victim a protective blindfold. If the whiff of cordite is detected at Lord’s Sunday, or more likely Monday, Alastair Cook’s professional obituaries can be written.
He will be fortunate to survive defeat in the Second Test, especially if it is sealed by yet another batting failure in the second innings. The game is finely poised, the stakes have never been higher.
Cook has been a lightning conductor in this spell of stormy weather. He has been blamed for everything from England’s slow over-rates to the prevalence of hay fever. Criticism, initially linked to the agenda of those eager to peddle the myth of Kevin Pietersen’s commitment to a collective cause, has become self-perpetuating.
His predecessors have been on their satellite-linked soapboxes and decreed that enough is enough. His technique has been dissected and been found wanting. His task is unequivocal: he must bat today as if his career depends on it, because it probably does so.
He is not the type to make excuses, to highlight the dislocation that can ambush new fathers like him. He is a solid citizen, transparently decent, understandably popular yet uniquely vulnerable.
Team huddles tend to be theatrical rather than statements of intent; strategies and bonding rituals are best reaffirmed in the privacy of the dressing room. But the one addressed by Cook in front of the pavilion as India set out in their second innings had an air of authenticity.
His earnestness was striking, and set the mood for two soporific but deceptively important sessions. It was also entirely in character. He has a farmer’s practicality and a refreshingly placid demeanour.
Captains with a more inflated notion of their importance would not contemplate the domestic drudgery of moving the bowler’s marker or ferrying the close fielder’s helmet to the other end of the pitch, as he did at the conclusion of every over.
Such is the virulence of the criticism he is obliged to face that some characterise such selflessness as an instinctive inability to prioritise and a reluctance to delegate. Yes, we are really getting that silly.
To prove the point, Shane Warne saw fit to castigate Cook for not making a bowling change after three overs of India’s response to a 24-run first-innings deficit.
His sycophants in the Pietersen Liberation Army, who tend to put the twit into Twitter, purred. More sensible souls, tired by the increasing absurdity of the personal attacks, passed the sick bag.
Cook’s problem, ultimately, lies in the disintegration of his batting technique. He scored more than 8,000 Test runs before he was worked out by the opposition, a minor miracle in this age of obsessive analytics.
That apart he, like any captain, can only play the hand he has been dealt. Moeen Ali’s inability to sustain the role of front-line spinner, for instance, leaves him with a dilemma from which he has little escape.
More exalted bowlers let him down in India’s first innings. The Jolly Green Giant of a Lord’s pitch has subsequently been neutered. The murk that hovered and lifted yesterday morning was replaced by mocking sunshine.
Cook may recite the modern mantra that he ignores the media yet he cannot fail to be aware that his future is a national talking point. Conventional wisdom suggests that he cannot afford to extend his sequence of low scores, which now leave him averaging 13.37 in 2014.
His sudden shortcomings as an opening batsman are close to being untenable, yet the sympathetic response by the cricketing public to his latest setback at Lord’s was significant. His popularity, a by-product of his modesty and obvious work ethic, is ironic given that under his captaincy England have become the team everyone loves to hate. Karmic retribution for their pitch-sprinkling arrogance at The Oval last summer has been swift and complete.
Admittedly, infuriating the Australians was so easy it became a matter of tribal pride. Yet to so completely alienate the Sri Lankans with boorish sledging, stage-managed truculence and attempts to intimidate was an avoidable handicap.
India followed the trend by being goaded into getting their retaliation in first. Their status, as the paymasters of world cricket, has bred an unmistakable sense of entitlement, and the supposed pushing match between Jimmy Anderson and Ravi Jadeja at Trent Bridge, which will be dealt with on Tuesday, has contributed to the tension which defines the current series.
India’s resistance to the DRS system, in defiance of global acceptance of such technological aids, is illogical and leaves them open to such examples of human fallibility as Ajinkya Rahane given out caught by Matt Prior off his armguard.
That effectively left India at 99 for 4, a position from which they recovered with relative comfort. Though Cook’s players are willing him to succeed, they know that only he can effect his escape from those who have him in their sights.