Hayter column: Why Cook would pick the Ageas Bowl as his battle ground

When Alastair Cook arrives at The Ageas Bowl for his date with cricketing destiny this week he may well reflect that the venue for it could hardly be more appropriate.

Four years ago, in July 2014, Cook took to the same field against the same opponents carrying with him the same sort of pressure and under the same scrutiny as he will do when he walks out against India in the fourth Specsavers Test.

Back then, he was facing calls from critics and sympathisers alike to step down as England captain.

Now all the talk is about whether he should actually carry on playing for them at all.

And if he could choose one venue to inspire him to attempt to shut it all down again, this would surely be it.

Some of the stuff coming his way in the build-up to the third Test of India’s previous tour here was downright abusive, notably from the twitter accounts of those enraged by the sacking of Kevin Pietersen following England 5-0 Ashes whitewash, and their warped version of Cook’s role in it.

“Captain Weasel,” they bravely howled into their echo chambers while Cook did his best to persuade all and sundry it didn’t hurt.

But he also knew Piers Morgan and his chums were not the only ones expressing genuine doubt over whether he should carry on and some of the other voices belonged to judges whose opinions were actually worth listening to.

One by one, former captains Michael Atherton, Michael Vaughan, Alec Stewart, Pietersen himself (you don’t say?) and Geoffrey Boycott had all called for Cook to go, too.

They were less concerned with name-calling or score-settling and more worried that Cook had scored just 638 runs in 27 innings since he last made a century at an average of 23.62, only six fifties in that period and a highest score in the year to date of 28.

What was more, he had led England in 10 Tests without a win, including that relentlessly grim thumping Down Under, followed by defeat in the previous home series against Sri Lanka (their first in England) and his side were 1-0 down after the first two Tests against MS Dhoni’s side after defeat in the second at Lord’s the previous week, in which his terrible 22 in the second innings was pure torture for him and any of his backers who could still bear to watch.

In the circumstances Cook might have been forgiven for sticking India in after winning the toss, but what happened after he took the tougher option changed the story completely and he admits he will never forget it.

As Cook began his walk to the crease he was almost stopped in his tracks by a huge and spontaneous roar of support from the crowd.

When, after surviving a drop by Ravindra Jadeja at slip, he reached lunch unbeaten on 48, they were on their feet again cheering him back to the pavilion, and there they stayed for rather longer than usual when he reached his first half-century in ten attempts.

The groan when he fell five short of three figures could be heard in France.

Answering his critics: Alastair Cook walks off the square at the Ageas Bowl after scoring 95 against India in 2014 (photo: Getty Images)

As Cook admitted later, the events of that day persuaded him to continue a career as skipper which then featured England’s 2015 Ashes victory and their brilliant 2-1 win in South Africa the following winter.

Speaking after he finally quit the job 18 months ago, he recalled: “Personally, the reception I got at Southampton in 2014, when things were as tough as they got for me… that was a special moment. That kept me in the job.

“It showed that the general cricket public actually wanted me to carry on and that was very special.”

As for now, Cook knows that his future as an England player cannot hinge on sentiment, nor the blind support of the public, his teammates or his many fans.

And he will give very shirt shrift to the notion that, just because he has scored more runs, 12,225, more centuries, 32, and played more times, 159, than any other England cricketer, he has earned the right to choose when he has been to the well more than enough.

His successor, Joe Root, said all the right things in the aftermath of the loss at Trent Bridge, stressing that he still sees in him the passion required to keep going until next summer’s home Ashes.

According to Root: “You watch him apply himself in training and go about his practice on the morning of every game, the way he speaks on the field, the way he speaks to the batters around the group and offers his experience, he doesn’t look like someone who is thinking about jacking it in.”

Cook himself has never taken a single day as an England player or a single run for granted.

“You always doubt yourself, that’s a natural thing,” he says. “It doesn’t get any easier.

He knows that after 12 years at the top it is now all about the numbers.

At the moment, with just 269 runs in 14 knocks at 19.21 since his 244 not out in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, they are not adding up, except, sadly, in the column of dropped catches which shows he currently has the worst success rate of any full-time slip fielder in Test cricket (30 per cent, followed, surprisingly by Ben Stokes).

But while Cook has been here or hereabouts before, never with quite so much at stake as in the upcoming Test match, except four years ago, when he took to the same field against the same opponents carrying with him the same sort of pressure and under the same scrutiny.

We wait so see whether the reaction of the crowd at The Ageas Bowl this week sounds like genuine support, or merely sympathy, whether it helps inspire him to carry on, or tells him and everyone else, that the time really has come for his brilliant career to end.

Either way, he couldn’t have chosen a more fitting place to find out.

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