In the bowels of Sydney Cricket Ground on a late night in January, Alastair Cook came close to saying enough was enough. For a man noted for an ice-cool persona he was uncharacteristically fraught.
He was not about to quit the England captaincy there and then but he announced his serious intention to give it deep thought. Cook was not broken exactly but he knew it could not go on like this. He was fed up of his form, he was alarmed by the string of poor results.
Although he has never come close to a repeat of his demeanour that night – quite the opposite – he will be rapidly reaching the conclusion once more that, six months later, things cannot go on as they are. The third Test against India starts tomorrow, England are 1-0 down with three to play. Cook and his team are still out of form and in a mess. The ground will not be full.
Unfortunately for Cook, the buck stops with him. In cricket it always does. He is the captain. Throughout this English season, as it has gone from bright optimism to same old, same old, Cook has forced himself to be relaxed and phlegmatic.
But it is possible to wonder looking at him if, when the day and the realisation dawn that it is not working, he will wish to continue at all. At 29, theoretically he has years ahead of him as a batsman and every runs record that exists could be his. But, much as he loves cricket, he is one of the few cricketers to have rewarding work beyond it.
Sometimes, he sounds as though he loves farming a little more. Towards the end of long stretches with the game, Cook talks almost longingly about returning to the farm. One day soon, he might just decide to stay there.
He said that night in Sydney, when England lost their ninth consecutive match: “I’m going to have to make a decision when we sit down and take stock at home. There are going to be some changes.
“English cricket needs a little bit of a change. The last three months we haven’t played the cricket we are capable of doing and we have to look at the reasons why.”
There was a little more where that came from – “we have kept losing games of cricket and I haven’t been able to turn them round” – and it was clear that Cook was feeling the heat. A couple of days later, England won a match at last and he shook himself out of it. He would continue after all.
Not long after that, he received the backing of the new England hierarchy, led by Paul Downton, the managing director. They made it clear that not only did they want Cook to stay, they wanted him to make it his team, as opposed presumably to the one led by the then coach Andy Flower, which Cook happened to take on to the field. They wanted Cook to assert himself.
How he has tried. The trouble is that nothing has changed. Since that night at the SCG, when his voice was breaking with the strain of it, Cook has led England in four Tests and eight one-day internationals, of which they have won four of the latter and none of the former.
Cook has not turned things round, either his form or the team’s results. He could easily have repeated his little speech in Sydney at Lord’s last Monday when England lost miserably to India by 95 runs.
The match on Sunday at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton, the third Test of five against India and the first in England to start on a Sunday, seems to represent a final opportunity. If England lose, they cannot win the Investec series. If Cook makes anything under a hundred – though a fifty would be something indeed in the present circumstances – it will be 29 Test innings since the last time he reached three figures.
Everyone with a soul wants Cook to succeed. He is England’s leading scorer of Test hundreds and he is a bloody good bloke, a tough bloke who has, until recently, made the most of his talent. Not that the testimonial given by Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, was entirely welcome: “He is a very determined guy, a very good role model and he and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be.” For an intelligent, sharp entrepreneur, which Clarke is, that was bilge.
Cook, as he was for most of the last six weeks of the 14 that England spent in Australia in the winter, is still the story. There have been breaks in between where Kevin Pietersen and his sacking, supported by Cook, commandeered the attention but Cook has it all again now.
A big decision like that offers you little wriggle room. The focus on the captain of the England cricket team has always been intense. But in the latest part of Cook’s tenure it has entered new extremes. Nobody before has been allowed such a long sequence of personal failure allied to team losses.
There are two reasons. The early part of Cook’s captaincy was blessed by success on both fronts. His own form began to tail off against Australia at home last summer but a 3-0 win for his team was able to conceal anything. There has also been the upheaval caused by the loss in quick succession of senior players such as Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann and Pietersen. A spine of experience, it was openly decreed, was vital.
It is now feasible to wonder if the success enjoyed by England in the past, Cook included, is impacting on their performances now. This seems a vast generalisation when Australia, for instance, and West Indies, before them, kept on winning year after year and never seemed to tire.
But for England it is slightly different now. They have or had achieved much, they are on a constant, relentless treadmill. As a correspondent, and lucky to be so, I feel it. Every day is an old day. Take India in this year, for instance.
Is there a little bit of Cook which might be saying: “Well, hang on, didn’t we beat India at home 4-0 three years ago, do we have to do it all again?”
This winter there is a break from Tests but next year is already the stuff of fatigue. Young, eager buckeroos like Joe Root, Gary Ballance and Moeen Ali will have their bounce extracted by then.
In the case of Jimmy Anderson, who has been at Cook’s side for most of his international career, it has caused him to play with a scowl. Anderson is beyond an endearing grumpiness now. Unlike that night in Sydney, almost as though it never happened, Cook has somehow retained a sanguine front, at least in public, this summer. He has a constant mantra along similar lines: “I know I need to score runs, I know we need to start winning.” But when Alastair, when?
It is easy to overlook, and some would say it is irrelevant, that Cook and his wife, Alice, had their first child in April. This might make it easy to forget his own problems on his rare visits home, put them in perspective, but it might make it harder to leave for another Test. That and the farm.
By now, it has become difficult to see how Cook can get out of this. At the very least England have to beat India in this series for him to have a hope of survival. He seems to acknowledge that without being explicit about it.
Cook could score a hundred in Southampton, England could win. It will be pleasant to report on but it will not mean that all’s right with the world.
THIRD TEST: PREVIEW
A N Cook (capt), S D Robson, G S Ballance, I R Bell, J E Root, M M Ali, J C Buttler (wkt), B A Stokes, S C J Broad, L J Plunkett, J M Anderson.
S Dhawan, M Vijay, C A Pujara, V Kohli, A M Rahane, M S Dhoni (capt, wkt), R A Jadeja, S T R Binny, B Kumar, I Sharma, Mohammed Shami.
M Erasmus (SA) & R Tucker (Aus).
Sky Sports 2, 10am-7pm Sunday
Highlights: Channel 5, 7-8pm.
Warm but mainly overcast, with some sunny intervals.
Maximum temp: 23C.