For Alastair Cook, batting has become a constant trial. Not that he has been doing much of it lately. His miserable form has been matched by that of his beleaguered team.
Cook has batted 38 times since his last one-day hundred, during which he has scored eight fifties without reaching 80. In eight innings this season he has faced a mere 318 balls. England, who he has led for more than three years, are being battered from pillar to post and are well into the return journey.
To add injury to insult, Ian Bell has been ruled out of Friday's fifth one-day international with a small fracture to his left big toe.
There is a perceptible crescendo in the calls for Cook’s removal, by resignation, sacking or possibly Act of Parliament. These are accompanied by equally strident suggestions for changes in strategy and probably players. Throw in the young’uns always was the panacea for losing teams.
It is unarguable that England’s performances have been wretched. But Cook is going nowhere – in the sense, that is, of departing the job – as he was going nowhere earlier this summer when equally vociferous demands were being made for him to be deprived, preferably by humane means, of the Test captaincy.
The time for England’s selectors to distance themselves from Cook, if ever they wanted to do it, was in 2011 before he was elevated to the one-day captaincy. He had taken no part in the recent World Cup, which had ended conventionally for England, in disastrous failure, or in the first-choice team for nearly three years. That was when England could – perhaps should – have taken a view.
Yet Cook, for a little while, demonstrated why his critics were wrong. He developed a style that was positively not pretty but was earnestly effective. He took his scoring rate well above 80 runs per 100 balls. It worked for England as well. Two years ago, it may not be remembered during the present crisis, England became the No 1-ranked 50-over team in the world. A year after that, they reached the final of the Champions Trophy.
It has all unravelled since then. Cook’s form, the way he looks as a batsman, has visibly deteriorated. Since being ambushed by Australia after the Ashes debacle, the team have lost the plot.
If England were to opt for change now this close to the World Cup, which starts next February, it would be an admission not only that the last three years were a waste but that the new regime, when it was fully instated in the spring, was misguided as well. Even if that leap were possible, there would be the question of who would take over.
It is true of England cricket captains, as it is of prime ministers and cricket correspondents, that there is always somebody else ready and willing to do the job. But in this case, the viable replacement, Eoin Morgan, is suffering a horrendous trot of his own. His place is no longer as assured as it was and were that to continue for, say, another five innings, he would need to be replaced as well.
In extremis, a state which some observers suggest has been reached, the selectors could opt for Joe Root, who is still finding his way, or James Vince, who has never played for England but has had some success in leading Hampshire’s Twenty20 side. There is indeed always someone else but it is equally wise to be careful of what you wish for. If anybody can turn this round, Cook can.
England are being castigated too for their approach to one-day cricket, as if it was something from the dark ages, or at least the 1990s. But it was working pretty well two years ago as they won five and drew one series out of seven.
Part of the problem with England’s one-day cricket is Test cricket, just as part of the problem with India’s Test cricket is one-day cricket. It has little to do with the composition of the sides.
The pundits are almost united in their belief in that England have the wrong personnel, that they are bringing a Test match mindset to the limited-overs forum. But other countries – South Africa, India and Australia only to a slightly lesser extent – select many or most of the same players for both forms.
Take India. Of the players now duffing up England, eight played in the ill-fated recent Test series. Of South Africa’s XI, nine regularly duplicate both formats. Australia are more proficient and precise at resting and rotation than others but up to eight players could appear in the preferred team for an Ashes Test match or a World Cup final.
At its heart, there may be an unpalatable reason for England’s general uselessness at one-day cricket, which applies also to India’s less successful Test results. In this country Test cricket is still the definitive form, the Ashes above all.
Cook, a little half-heartedly, rejected this assertion in the wake of the hammering at Edgbaston – “you should be in that dressing room” – but in the same way India have forgotten their abject Test form because of this one-day result. There may, after all, then be a case for two different England teams. In the meantime they need one for Headingley on Friday.Reuse content