The future of England’s captain will be decided over the next 42 days. Beat India in the series of five matches starting on Wednesday in Nottingham while also returning to form and all will be well for Alastair Cook. Lose and continue in the batting trough where he has laboured for a year and his term of office should be done. The wilderness awaits.
There comes a point when the well-founded choruses of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” wear so thin that the holes are gaping. That point will be reached if England fail to overcome a side which has all but forgotten how to win Test matches away from home.
Cook was reluctant to contemplate his possible fate, preferring to think that the sunlit uplands are just round the bend. Victory in the series, one of the most gruelling ever devised, is perhaps the most important goal, but if England win and he fails to make a serious contribution the conundrum of what to do still exists.
Should England lose while he scores a couple of centuries then the selectors may still have to dwell long and hard on whether they have indeed chosen the right player to lead the side out of their present despond. They have invested a great deal of faith in Cook but, despite a previous record that tends to be too easily overlooked – an Ashes win, victory in India – he has to repay them in the here and now.
“I am not in charge of anything like that,” he said of selecting who leads the side. “I concentrate on doing the job which I’ve been asked to do. I’m incredibly proud to be England captain. I have thrown everything into it and continue to.
“Until that day the selectors decide I’m not the right man for the job I will continue to. It is a huge honour to do this and I can go to sleep knowing that I’ve thrown everything I’ve got into it.”
Pride and honour, he knows, can take him only so far. He is in a results-driven trade and England have gone eight Test matches without a win, which also embraces two series defeats. Cook himself has gone 24 innings since scoring the most recent of his record 25 Test hundreds. It is easy to deduce that either the form is affecting the leadership or the leadership is affecting his form, or, by now, very probably both.
Despite the reservations about tactical nous and natural leadership skills, which are probably more important, there is a fund of goodwill for Cook. Most observers sincerely want him to succeed because he is a high-class and obdurate performer and a bloody good bloke. But decent chaps do not necessarily make scheming, successful captains and, like many who have done the job before him, Cook is in danger of being worn down by the demands of it all after a run of 21 matches.
Was there, however, a hint of desperation in his response when he was asked if he was thick-skinned enough to take all the opprobrium which has been heaped on him lately, much of it contemptible? “I think you need to be,” he said. “I think you have to be determined and stick to your guns as well. We all know you are judged on results and results have not been good enough. If we turn it round and win games of cricket, things will be different.”
India seem to present England, even a reshaped England, with a golden opportunity to achieve some kind of redemption. How different it all is from when the sides met in a series in this country three years ago with the No 1 Test ranking at stake. By winning 4-0 England took over the top spot.
Now the sides are languishing in fourth (India) and fifth (England), which is not where two of the nations who purport to run the game on behalf of the International Cricket Council should be. If England win by two clear matches they can go to third, while India can move to third with a straightforward series win by any margin.
But these tourists have not won any of their last 14 Tests away from home, going back more than three years. In addition, they have a squad in which only three players have appeared before in a Test in England.
Nothing that their seamers have done so far in the two warm-up matches against Leicestershire and Derbyshire suggests that it will be anything other than damnably difficult to take 20 of their opponents’ wickets in any of the Tests. Equally, England have deep-seated concerns of their own. Their opening pair of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Board both finished the second Test against Sri Lanka, which England lost off the penultimate ball, looking in need of a long rest.
Cook offered assurances that the 14-day break since the match at Headingley had restored them in body and spirit. That, however, does not take into account how arduous this series will be from start to finish. The longest break between any of the matches is the six days between the third and the fourth Tests. It will all be done and dusted by 19 August.
There are bound to be changes in both sides before then with the bowlers certain to be rotated. At least, England appear to have avoided an enforced change before the series, with Matt Prior demonstrating that he has overcome a thigh injury by going through a strenuous training session.
In such a cramped schedule, the team which goes ahead may well stay ahead. For Cook and England the next five days could determine the direction of the 37 after it.
First Test: Trent Bridge details
England A N Cook (capt), S D Robson, G S Ballance, I R Bell, J E Root, M M Ali, M J Prior (wkt), B A Stokes, S C J Broad, L J Plunkett, J M Anderson
India S Dhawan, M Vijay, C A Pujara, V Kohli, R G Sharma, A M Rahane, M S Dhoni (capt & wkt), R Ashwin, I Sharma, Mohammed Shami, B Kumar.
Umpires K Dharmasena (SL) & B Oxenford (Aus).
Pitch report Looks dry for start of match but rain is threatened. Whatever it plays like, England’s senior seamers will be encouraged by previous performances on the ground.
TV Sky Sports 2, 10am-7pm, Highlights Channel 5, 7-8pm.
Weather Staying dry with sunny intervals. Maximum temp: 21C.