Predictable. That has to be the overriding reaction to England’s epic collapse in the evening session. Defeat in the final Test and a 4-0 series hammering was expected by more than just the most pessimistic, irrespective of the pitch remaining a good one. England have looked mentally shot for a while now, and perhaps that’s to be expected. Indeed, the slightly bigger surprise was that for much of the day they appeared to be on track for a draw, before losing 6 wickets for 16 runs post tea and gaining an outstanding if unwanted record for scoring the largest first innings total when suffering an innings defeat in Test history.
In truth, although Cook and Jennings had reached lunch unscathed, it wasn’t a comfortable stand, Cook being dropped early on, and various other near misses for them both. That they survived to give England a sniff of what some were waiting to write up as a valedictory draw is actually rather to their credit. Immediately post lunch was where it started to go wrong, 103-0 becoming 129-4 in less than an hour. Alastair Cook is a curious player in that when he starts to struggle, the technical glitches become ever more apparent, in a way that is less obvious with – say – Joe Root. Over a five match Test series players getting out in the same way try ever more visibly obvious means of countering the problem. Cook is getting too far over to the offside, which is leaving him both prone to lbw and to the legside catches off the spinners as in the case here. No one will be more aware of it than him, and it is not offered up as a criticism of his batting, more an acute illustration of the difficulties of a good batsman under severe pressure, both mental and from the bowlers.
Even then, a decent partnership between Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes had taken England to a healthy position, and on reaching tea four wickets down, must have fancied their chances of saving the game. What happened thereafter will mark a new entry into the charts of England’s most glorious collapses, and had the merit of style points by being largely self-inflicted.
Moeen’s dismissal in particular will be one that gets replayed, for there is little more embarrassing than getting out coming down the track attempting to go over the top when trying to save the game. And rightly so too, for it looked awful. There are caveats to this – it is easy to see some praising the approach for throwing the bowling off line and length if it succeeds; likewise, playing a natural game to try to save a match is thoroughly approved of when it succeeds – Matt Prior’s entirely correct – for him – counterattacking rearguard in Auckland in 2013 was downright lucky at times, not least the moment he went through to his century with a miscued hook. Yet he was praised for that innings for one reason alone – it worked. Outcome tends to be the determining factor in these things, and the old adage of “hit sixes but don’t take any risks” often seems to apply.
Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the fact it’s a pretty dire way to get out less than two hours away from safety, and the rest of the batting order were little better. As much as anything, it’s indicative of thoroughly frazzled minds, leading to poor decision making. There is often a temptation to blame the first victim of what becomes a collapse for all the subsequent ones, yet this remains as ludicrous as it always has done. Players are responsible for their own actions, not those of others, and the dismissals of Stokes, Dawson and Rashid were all poor in their own ways; singling out the player who scored nearly 200 runs in the match on his own as the one to blame for how others got out is bizarre.
Once again Jos Buttler was left high and dry as the tail collapsed around him, making the point rather beautifully that it matters little how many batsmen you have if none of them stay in. For such an attacking player, there is irony in it being him and pretty much only him who appeared mentally up to the challenge of blocking the match out.
India’s celebrations on taking the tenth wicket were joyous, for they have comprehensively outplayed England, and by ever increasing degrees as the series has gone on. The grinding into the dirt that occurred in this match was ruthless, but deeply impressive, and for all the rationalising of different elements and players, the reality is that England would most likely have lost the series irrespective of calls for changes. That said, England could and should have played far better than they did; the chasm between the sides need not have been anything like so vast. There will be attempts at revisionism from some quarters to indicate this was always likely. It wasn’t.
For Alastair Cook, the questions about his future came immediately after the game. His response that he shouldn’t be asked about it was clumsy, as is often the case with Cook, but probably right in the sense that it wasn’t the time. Much as the media would love to get instant decisions, it is far better to wait for the dust to settle and come to a considered view rather then offer up an emotional one in the aftermath of a battering. That being said, there’s really only one decision to make here, and not in itself because of the series result. Cook has been prevaricating about his captaincy for quite some time now, announcing to anyone who asked that he is unsure of whether to carry on or not. By being so unsure, he has made it abundantly clear that he shouldn’t carry on, for while people will have doubts in private, and may discuss them with family or close friends, to openly discuss publicly the possibility of giving up the captaincy says in itself it’s time to go. Cook cannot possibly be fully committed to the role any longer having effectively admitted he isn’t, and even if he decided to carry on and was allowed to do so, the same feelings would return wholesale upon the next defeat.
Naturally enough, the rest of the management and team were then asked the same question, and equally naturally, they defaulted to supporting the captain and saying he’s the right man for the job. There is nothing else they can say, even if they don’t believe it – although there’s no evidence they don’t. This then becomes a feeding frenzy, and that is not at all good for England cricket, and not even good for Cook himself. Cook’s tenure may have been a period of dissension and division, but the reality now is more prosaic – it’s simply time to go as captain for his own good and for the team’s.
Cook’s agreement that England have stagnated over the last year is probably right. 2016 has been a pretty miserable year for the Test side, the only series win coming against a Sri Lanka team vastly weakened by retirements. This winter England have lost five of their seven matches, with only a single victory over Bangladesh. In normal circumstances, no captain would be felt able to survive that kind of record. Yet with Cook there are enough queueing up to make every kind of excuse for that record, blaming everyone except the captain himself, that it remains in some question. It shouldn’t. It’s not because everything can be laid at Cook’s door for that would be scapegoating to the same extent Adil Rashid has suffered, but he’s never been a sufficiently good captain for it to be a justification in itself. If he was, then a case could be made for retention as an asset in the role, for even a losing captain of a weak side can be a good one, Stephen Fleming is a decent example. At times he’s been competent, at others, truly abysmal.
The constant refrain has been that Cook is both popular and a good leader in the dressing room. That may well be true, but a leader is not necessarily a captain, nor vice versa; Cook in the ranks would still be a leader for the younger players in the side who would look up to him by virtue of his record. The simple question is whether England would be stronger or weaker with him in charge. That argument has been made many times over the years, but it is particularly acute given the outcome of this series. It is very hard to make a case for saying that Cook as captain actually makes England a stronger side, even if some would baulk at the idea that he actively weakens them. There’s a further point, and that is the question of Cook the batsman. He’s managed the dual roles better than most recent incumbents, his batting has held up fairly well throughout his tenure, with no obvious indication that it has lessened his batting contribution. But for all the talk about whether taking on the captaincy would negatively affect Joe Root, few ask the question as to whether relinquishing it would positively benefit Cook – for that is the unspoken corollary of that particular argument. Cook the batsman is simply more valuable than Cook the captain, and he always was, except as an ECB marketing tool.
When England were whitewashed in Australia 2 years ago, the response was to close ranks around Alastair Cook, single out one individual to blame for the farrago and pretend that none of the cracks that appeared needed to be addressed. There are already attempts to portray this outcome as being within normal parameters, and beyond the Cook captaincy question, there’s little indication that real attention will be paid to why what has transpired recently has happened. There have to be fears that Adil Rashid will be quietly removed from future consideration given the heavy criticism he has received from sources who have a habit of being unusually close to ECB thinking. The timing of the leaks (The ECB don’t leak, remember) concerning the action of Jack Leach will raise suspicions about what exactly the ECB hierarchy are up to, not least given the rather over the top praise for Liam Dawson from those same types friendly towards the ECB. Perhaps such suspicions are entirely wide of the mark, but when an organisation has been so duplicitous in the recent past, they lose their right to be given trust in what they do.
For this is their abiding problem; it isn’t that there are simple solutions to England’s difficulties, it’s that the pattern of deceit over time, throughout the upper levels of the organisation, leads observers to assume they are up to their old tricks even when they aren’t. In this case they may be, or they may not. But why would anyone believe them when they say it isn’t so?
England have problems from top to bottom, but there are areas of hope, and young players coming through who look promising. The experienced ones cannot be written off just yet, but there is a hint of a changing of the guard in this team. They have six months off from Test cricket, before one of the most insane schedules England have ever put together kicks in. Next year’s winter tours, including the Ashes, involve England going away from October until April 2018. If England struggled with five Tests in six weeks this series, they are going to be on their knees by the end of the New Zealand tour following the Ashes.
With the one day tour to the West Indies and Champions Trophy at home, Cook has six months off to recharge his batteries. He will undoubtedly need it, and it’s to be hoped he is able to relax, free his mind of the clutter that will be swirling at the moment, and come back with a bang as the batsman who at his best can drive opposition bowlers to despair. If the price of getting that player back was to give up the captaincy, surely even his greatest supporters would think that worth paying?