With defeat can come a time for reflection, for honesty and the opportunity to examine where a side is going wrong, why games are being lost, and what can be done about it. It can even be a period where one accepts that the team is being outplayed and there’s little that can be done to change that in the short term, beyond redoubling efforts. Either way, it requires a degree of self-awareness and the willingness to see that decisions may be wrong, that approaches need to change and that personnel might not be doing all they are capable of doing.
And then there’s the second element, in that the honesty required is internal, and talking to the media doesn’t mean sharing all that with everyone else. The kind of deep discussion required should not, and usually does not, make it beyond the confines of the dressing room, and that is exactly as it should be. That makes the fronting up to the media rather difficult, as those who have paid to watch the team play deserve answers, but for the sake of the team there are limits to how detailed and how extensive those answers should be.
Those competing imperatives can cause some frustration amongst supporters. When a side has been woeful, hearing a manager come out and defend them and claim they actually played well drives many to distraction, as any fan of the England football team for the last forty years or so will tell you. Yet it’s to some extent a necessary fiction, and in private the manager could well be climbing the walls at the inability of his charges to do what they were meant to do.
As a result, the post match interviews should always be seen through the prism of limited information, both for team dynamics and because the opposition are listening in. Reading too much into them is a dangerous game, though what people do want to hear is a degree of honesty, and a restriction on the volume of platitudes offered up. Of course, in many sports, football in particular, that’s because the media themselves are waiting to pounce on any expression of weakness, whereby the plea for honesty is nothing but hypocrisy given how such honesty is then treated. As a result, wagons are circled and a siege mentality is often the best one to adopt. All sports teams live in a bubble anyway, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary, the supporters, even though they ultimately pay all the salaries, are removed from consideration. It’s understandable to an extent, though you can get the situation where an England player assumes the ticket prices to be a quarter of what they actually are – that much ignorance is unacceptable.
The trouble is that there’s a contradiction here. By no measure could England be said to have a hostile press, indeed supine is nearer the mark given their inability to offer up any kind of examination of their flaws in structure or execution – whataboutery, especially if Kevin Pietersen can be brought into it, is the more likely response. Defensiveness is understandable in itself after a defeat, the problem is that when it occurs even when the criticism is highly limited in the first place that suggests that the mindset is one of being closed off to the reality of the situation.
The match was completed this morning in short order, England collapsing from their already desperate position to give India the expected series win and revenge for the defeat four years ago. The response to it was therefore one of interest, to see whether England were fully appreciative of what had gone wrong and why. Again, an instant response from all involved needs to take into account that words can be poorly chosen, or that with a game still to go baring one’s soul may not be the best, most appropriate response. Yet the captain’s words are interesting in themselves for demonstrating a particular mindset:
“I thought 400 was a pretty good score on that wicket. Keaton played really well, at 230 for 2 maybe should have got 450. Historically, 400 is a good score on this ground.
“In the second innings we had our chances. We aren’t taking those chances at the moment. Virat played an extraordinary innings but we had a chance on 60-odd to get him. Those are things that the game changes on. We are in it for three days but not good enough to stay in it. We haven’t been good enough to match India.
“We wanted to see what four seamers would look like because on the tour they have given us control and our two best spinners have been Mo and Rash. When you batted first you didn’t need that extra seamer, so that was a mistake. We had a chance to restrict the lead. We would have been in the game. But that isn’t really good enough. To me, we batted better in this game than the previous two.
I go back to the chances we missed, we could have bowled India out for 400. Virat is in incredible form, having one of the series you dream of. Clearly one of the great batsmen of our generation.”
Cook is quite right to laud Kohli’s performance. He has proved to be the difference between the sides throughout the series, and his extraordinary innings here turned India’s position from middling to utterly dominant. Yet his comments about the game turning on a missed chance is both unfair and could be said about pretty much every Test match ever played. Catches will always be dropped, but the bigger and more pertinent question is why it was that this was the only chance created, for that aside, England didn’t remotely look like taking a wicket. It wasn’t exactly a dolly, and nor was Kohli the only centurion to be dropped in that innings. Using that as a crutch to explain why the game was lost is throwing a team mate under the bus and effectively blaming him for defeat. Now, everyone can say things they shouldn’t, and reflect later that it might not have been appropriate, but it’s still not a good thing to do to a member of the side, and nor is it the first time Cook has done it. Even great teams drop catches, but those great teams create another chance. If you make only one in an innings of that length, that is the far greater problem. India have dropped plenty of catches both in this match and across the series – it hasn’t just been England, and while Kohli may have been magnificent, Jayant Yadav also scored a century, and it wasn’t luck that allowed him to do it. He can bat, and showed it, but England couldn’t get him out. That isn’t down to Rashid dropping a chance.
Likewise, the section concerning the seam attack is simply rather peculiar. If taken in isolation, any team can get it wrong and pick the wrong side, but this is the second match in succession that they’re saying this – indeed the implication is that they have got the right teams but the wrong way around: too many spinners last time, too many seamers this. The reference to the toss is simply odd, since when has the team depended on whether you win it or lose it? How can it be a mistake if England won the toss, but not if they didn’t?
In any case, India’s seam bowlers have outperformed England’s. James Anderson went wicketless in this Test, as in the last one, and while he might indeed be offering control, he isn’t taking wickets, or even looking like taking wickets given his insistence on bowling outside the stumps allowing the Indian batsman to watch it harmlessly pass by. Furthermore, the seam attack isn’t going to be important if you don’t take the second new ball for 40 overs after it’s become due. It suggests that there’s no faith in them getting any wickets at all.
Ruthlessly analysing every spoken word for an error is not fair on anyone, but Cook’s answer is still jarring, and invites concern that England are too frazzled to understand what they are trying to achieve, whether in selection or execution. When a side is struggling, errors are magnified by the opposition. As said yesterday, there’s no disgrace in losing this series to a team who are very good at home, but what is harder to grasp is what England are attempting to achieve here.
Cook did also go on to talk about the captaincy, which in itself suggests that he’s thinking about the end of his reign and there has to be a degree of human sympathy for him here, because leading a team who is getting badly beaten – and England now are being badly beaten – is emotionally difficult. He is highly fortunate in the coverage he is getting, for it is impossible to imagine any previous England captain ever getting such a comfortable ride – even if there are some words of gentle criticism now being offered. Still the idea that he can choose his own departure date on the back of more Test defeats in a calendar year than any previous incumbent plus a second proper hammering in an away series under his leadership beggars belief. To say so would mean that he is more important than the team.
Nobody wants to see a captain (or anyone else please note) made the scapegoat for the failings of a team, but it remains utterly extraordinary how favourable the coverage of Cook as captain is. Nobody is under the impression that he’s a superb captain, not even the biggest cheerleaders for him would ever make that claim. Thus the idea that him not doing it would represent some kind of disaster is impossible to believe or justify. Equally, he’s not had a record as captain that’s good enough to justify the adoration, being no better than that of Nasser Hussain who had far weaker personnel to work with. He did lead England to two Ashes victories at home, but also in the away disaster in 2013/14. The away win in India is an undoubted highlight, but balancing that is the home defeat to Sri Lanka and the drawn series in Bangladesh.
His tenure certainly hasn’t been a disaster, but nor has it been especially good, and the suspicion that England aren’t getting as much out of the team as they could does come down to leadership, whether of the captain or the coaching and administration. His on field captaincy has been – to put it kindly – limited, the administration of the ECB inept. Quite how he gets such approval, such reverence, is impossible to understand, for the likes of Paul Newman write as though he was a clone of Mike Brearley. It is notable that far greater criticism of Kohli’s captaincy has been present in the English media than that of Cook’s, and while Kohli may not be a great captain, he’s the recipient of the kind of comment that has been notably absent about Cook for much of his reign. The problem here is that it is counterproductive. It is treating the public as idiots – so obviously biased in Cook’s favour that it merely enrages those who would otherwise accept a limited captain doing the best he can. Pretending that black is white merely destroys the credibility of the cricket media.
The game ended with an on field spat between Ravi Ashwin and James Anderson, which is not altogether surprising given Anderson’s comments about Virat Kohli the night before. Perhaps the frustration at England’s performances seeped through, but the comments were not especially wise and lacked grace. It would be equally easy for them to talk about Anderson in the same vein, and Anderson surely knows that.
India are a good team, one who thoroughly deserve to have won the series, yet they are not a great one, at least not yet; suggesting they are is curiously making excuses for England – that they simply could not and never would be able to beat India no matter how well they played. There is being realistic about things, and there is burying a head under the duvet and hoping it will all end soon and there’s nothing that could have been done. India are very likely to almost always have better spinners than England, but this series they’ve had better seamers too. Indian batsmen are always going to be better players of spin than English ones, but it doesn’t explain the lack of patience or irresponsible dismissals of England batsmen when set. Perhaps it is indeed the case that Kohli isn’t a great captain, but when you have a superior side, that can be disguised – as England have demonstrated under Cook before – and when losing the weakness in that discipline is highlighted more.
Perhaps behind the scenes England are well aware of all these things and are discussing and debating them. But the media have long abrogated their responsibility to hold England to account, and the signs are that the ECB structure doesn’t see it. Andrew Strauss, highly visible when England do well, has been entirely absent this winter.
There is one match remaining. It is a struggle to see anything other than a comprehensive India win, for the margins of victory are getting wider. Cook’s line that he will sit down with the Director, Cricket at the end of the year is not an unreasonable one, for the conclusion of the series is the time to make decisions not during it. That discussion will decide what the England team are ultimately about and where they go, for there is talent there and there are good players coming though.
For now, India should celebrate their thoroughly deserved win. England have a lot of thinking to do.