James Lawton: Lucky England captain Alastair Cook narrowly avoids letting New Zealand off the hook

England's 2-0 series win had come within a few droplets of being expunged

Yorkshire skies, which rather like the people below them generally give you nowt, could not have been more generous to England's trainee captain Alastair Cook.

If that sounds like an impertinent job description for a cricketer of already staggering achievement, it is one which might have acquired even more edge if the rains of Headingley had been only marginally heavier.

One of the more ludicrous follow-on decisions escaped what the realities of top cricket would surely have pronounced an embarrassing and thoroughly deserved fate.

As it was the New Zealand tail-enders, who should have been put out of their misery at least 24 hours earlier, chuckled at the prospect of an extraordinary reprieve even as they wiped the drizzle from their faces.

They were not exactly singing in the rain but Tim Southee and Doug Bracewell plainly thought they might just have been on the verge of creating a cricket farce as they whacked huge sixes.

In the end the old destroyer Jimmy Anderson delivered the coup-de-grâce but the formality of England's 2-0 series win – and an important statement about a nicely developing ruthless streak on the run-in to the Ashes – had come within a few droplets of being expunged.

Now the statistic must carry the asterisk which says that a massive victory – and a host of positives from the precocious brilliance of Yorkshire's favourite son Joe Root and the power and range of a bowling attack in which Graeme Swann has re-announced himself a central figure on one of his least favourite tracks – was unnecessarily compromised.

England coach Andy Flower, who of course had major input, bridled at criticisms of Cook's announcement that the New Zealanders, who had just been put to the sword by an England attack which had done the damage while using up barely half the life of the original ball, would be given a reprieve while plainly in a state of shock.

What was the purpose of sending the still fresh Anderson, Stuart Broad, the brilliantly hostile and re-programmed Steve Finn and Swann back to the pavilion with the smell of Kiwi blood in their nostrils? Was it to extend the Bank Holiday entertainment of a Yorkshire crowd with another look at Root and his impressive Yorkie team-mate Jonny Bairstow? Surely it could not be that. The idea was hardly underpinned by the sight of an idling Jonathan Trott, a man who for all his prodigious talents can suggest even on his best days that he his inhabiting not a public stage but his private island.

Naturally, other theories were swiftly forthcoming. Cook was intent on a further grinding down of the New Zealanders, which in the circumstances was almost a case for the League against Cruel Sports. By the time they came to bat again their position would be even more impossible. But then if there are many degrees of demoralisation, the same is true of caution. On this occasion Cook surely found a new dimension.

His defenders now say that he was entirely vindicated both on and off the field but as the dawn of the Ashes battle approaches it can be argued that the most important priority of Test cricket was ignored when Cook decided not to enforce the follow-on.

This imperative is entirely to do with the business of prosecuting a victory, as quickly, as soundly as the situation demands. Delaying the kill under the weight of weather forecasts which, if not entirely right were perilously close to being so, was plainly at variance with such a requirement. The result was that New Zealand, from a quite hopeless situation, were allowed to come close to obeying to the second greatest law of Test cricket, the one that says if you cannot win, if you do not have an earthly chance of doing so, you are obliged to pursue a draw.

Had they done so it would scarcely have qualified as one of cricket's great escapes, not when the jailer had left so wide open the cell door.

Cook was, predictably enough, unrepentant last night, saying that a 247-run victory was all the justification he needed. He also said that there are many different ways of skinning a cat. However, as we learned, this is more difficult when you come so close to giving it at least one of its nine lives.

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