x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Too little Cook has not spoilt England's recipe in Ashes

Why does it feel like Cook and England have so much still to prove ahead of the fourth Test, at Chester-le-Street? Graham Caygill examines the issue.

Alastair Cook takes batting practice with coach Graham Gooch. The England captain’s run production has been down.
Alastair Cook takes batting practice with coach Graham Gooch. The England captain’s run production has been down.

There was a time when winning an Ashes series was the ultimate ambition for any England captain.

Certainly, between the success of Mike Gatting's touring side in 1986/87 and Michael Vaughan's triumphant team of 2005, it was a feeling no English captain got to experience.

Graham Gooch, Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain were captains who only knew defeat when they came up against their arch-rivals in series meetings in the past.

All four, now retired, were in attendance at Old Trafford on Monday in their respective coaching or media capacities. Each surely would have, deep down, experienced small pangs of jealousy at the experience Alastair Cook got to experience on Monday in leading an England side whose draw with Australia was enough to retain the Ashes with two Tests to spare.

You have to go back to January 1979 for the last time that England were guaranteed to leave an Ashes series with the urn in their grasp with two Tests still to go.

So, then, why does it feel like Cook and England have so much still to prove ahead of the fourth Test, at Chester-le-Street?

The crux of the issue is that Cook will know that his side, individually and collectively, have largely underperformed.

Cook is not the first captain to see his form slide since taking on extra levels of responsibility, but this has not been his best series to date with the bat, by a wide margin. Cook began life as captain well after taking over from Andrew Strauss, leading England to a historic series victory in India at the end of last year and scoring three hundreds in the process as he averaged 80.

He scored a hundred in New Zealand and then another in the reverse series in England in May, but it has largely been a struggle against Australia, averaging just 24.16.

He has passed fifty twice in the series, in the second innings at Trent Bridge and then last Saturday at Old Trafford, and both were important knocks with his side under pressure.

But neither were what you could describe as fluid.

The foot movement seemed scratchy at best, and the form that saw him pulverise the Australian attack in 2010/11 for 766 runs seems long gone.

In fairness, Cook has faced the strongest attribute of the weakest Australia side to tour England since 1985 - their bowling.

The way in which Ryan Harris set up Cook with a number of wide deliveries, before nailing the inswinging ball that trapped Cook leg before on the final day at Old Trafford, was a masterclass in bowling.

It is clear the Australians have learnt their lesson from the pummelling Cook gave them in the past, bowling to a plan to deny him runs in his favourite scoring areas, primarily of his legs.

Cook has had mediocre series results before, but he has usually delivered one big number that has made up for the other low scores.

He had a tough time against India at home in 2011, combined for just 20 in his first four innings, before an epic 294 at Edgbaston made everyone forget his early problems.

In 2010, he toiled against Pakistan, scoring 167 in seven innings, 110 of which came when he was facing calls to be dropped, at the Oval.

Cook is a class act, undeniably nobody scores 25 Test hundreds by accident. It is not the first time that he has had to work for runs, but he will want to galvanise his team's misfiring batting order with a big innings this weekend.

Only Ian Bell can genuinely be happy with how he has batted thus far, and Cook aspires to lead from the front to inspire better from his team.

His captaincy has been called into question, with media outlets in England and Australia both comparing him unfavourably to Michael Clarke, whose innovative bowling changes and field placements have been applauded, even in the face of defeat.

Less than a year into the role, Cook is still learning, but it would not be unfair to say he has been slow to react on a number of occasions - Ashton Agar's big-hitting cameo at No 11 in the first Test, over-bowling Graeme Swann at Old Trafford and not using Joe Root as Australia piled on the runs instantly come to mind.

England deserve to be ahead in the series, but they were thoroughly outplayed by Australia, both with bat and ball, at Old Trafford and only rain saved Cook's men from an uncomfortable final two sessions against a pumped-up touring side's bowling attack.

The hollowness of England retaining the Ashes on a draw, when they had been the weaker side, isn't how Cook imagined an Ashes-retaining moment, but they all count, just as an edge through the slip cordon to the boundary for four is worth the same as an exquisite cover drive to the rope.

What England and Cook need now is to mount a charm offensive.

Win well in Durham and then at the Kennington Oval in the final Test to convince everyone that they are truly worthy winners.

They are not just looking to beat Australia.

They are out to defeat the doubters.

 

gcaygill@thenational.ae

 

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