Sri Lanka vs England ODI preview: Pressure on Alastair Cook to deliver overdue England win

The third ODI of the series takes place on Wednesday

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The Independent Online

A team that has virtually  forgotten how to win under a captain who has almost ceased functioning as a one-day run-scorer will tomorrow attempt to salvage their tour.

England are 2-0 down in the series against Sri Lanka, outplayed and outsmarted. Only the fact that the series comprises seven matches gives them the remotest chance of turning matters round.

Lose the third tomorrow and it will start to overwhelm Alastair Cook, whose slump in form has stubbornly refused to abate. That Cook is hardly alone in a long run of poor batting form can be scant cause for encouragement for a squad that is desperately searching for some kind of formula to win games of one-day cricket.

Perhaps they are trying too hard, perhaps they have lost so often that they are confused about what to do next. The ground hewed out of the jungle in the south-east corner of this country is as good a place as any to start, though the torrential rain which dogged the team in Colombo has followed them with knobs on.

Each day a player appears to offer his thoughts on progress, his own and the team’s, and each day he dutifully defends the position of the captain. It would be really something if one were to say the team are simply not good enough and perhaps their leader could do with a rest. That does not happen in professional sport as it does not happen in politics.

The difference here is that the whole squad, the cabinet as it were, far from jockeying for position for the succession, appear perfectly genuine in their support of Cook despite the increasing disaffection of the public and pundits.

Steve Finn, a fast bowler who (whisper it quietly) is being restored to something like his former self, was the latest to lay his eggs in Cook’s basket today.

England’s nets session in Hambantota is cancelled due to a thunderstorm today

“Look, we’ve had two games of cricket over here, we have had two innings and Alastair is not the only person who has struggled to perform in the team,” said Finn. “I think the pressure on him is a little bit unjust. We have got five games of cricket left to play over here. Everyone in the dressing room fully supports him, he is an incredibly impressive man to be leading us. Everyone in the dressing room is most definitely behind him.”

The question actually related to how long it could continue, not whether it should. Finn’s response might have been sincere but he must have known – everybody knows – that it did not address the issue in the round. It is not the fact that England have lost two matches in a country where they have usually lost but that they have been in decline for two years and Cook has been short of runs for most of that time.

If he manages to score meaningful runs in an England victory, the critics will be silenced awhile. But stock will have to be taken shortly. If neither wins nor runs come, then what? The asking price by now, it would seem, is two wins and two fifties in the next five matches. Anything more in either category could be considered a bonus for all concerned.

The team has so far managed to avoid a siege mentality, which is often the default position of all losing sportsmen. Finn, like the rest of them, sees this is as a series of baby steps to the World Cup in February. At this rate they will still be falling on their faces while trying to toddle but Finn would argue that point.

He said: “Obviously we don’t want to be losing games now, we want to be winning all our games but if we can take everything in our stride as it is at the moment and keep improving and keep putting blocks in place I think we will be in a great place when we get to the World Cup.

“We need to keep showing balls. We need to front up and get out there and face everything that’s put in front of us. It’s about being smart when you’re out there on the pitch and training smart beforehand in order to prepare you for the conditions you’re going to face. That’s something we can keep improving on and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Finn, like all fast bowlers, will have another matter on his mind tomorrow. This match is being played against the overwhelmingly sad backdrop of Phillip Hughes’s funeral in his home town of Macksville, which will have taken place a few hours before the start of the match. Finn knew Hughes – they played together at Middlesex in 2009.

Hughes died after receiving a bouncer which hit him in the side of the neck. It was an unprecedented accident but it has understandably raised the question of a fast bowler’s job. Finn spoke with a respectful, muted conviction. “Everyone has been in a real bad place about what happened,” he said. “Everyone is very sad about it, particularly myself, but what more can I say? Everyone has been devastated by it.

“It was a great tragedy and an accident. When you bowl a bouncer, yes you want to keep the batsman on his toes but you don’t want to severely hurt a batsman at all. I think we have to accept that it was a great tragedy and a great accident but I don’t think the game should change.”

In essence, he was  right but in other ways the game has already been changed forever.