By Peter Hayter
Only Alastair Cook will know for sure if his race is run. Kevin Pietersen says he thinks the desire has gone, others have already written off the career of the man who has played more Test matches (150), scored more Test runs (11,712) and made more Test centuries (31) than any other Englishman.
Graeme Swann says his ex-skipper needs a big score to convince himself to carry on and questions whether he has the hunger to do so. Scores of 2, 17, 37, 16, 7 and 14, a total of 83 at an average of 13.83 are not what his side needed either.
Mike Atherton reckons that, at 33 on Christmas Day, should he manage to drag himself out of this slump, Cook could go on as long as his mentor Graham Gooch who played his final Test, in Australia as it happens, at the end of the 1994-95 Ashes, aged 41.
And Michael Vaughan suggested: “Eventually he will decide that enough is enough and he can’t carry on but I don’t think that stage has come just yet.”
Cook himself has responded to those who doubt his motivation by stressing politely just how much playing for England still means to him and he has backed that up with extra practice in public and in private he simply would not have put himself through if he had lost the will to care.
But perhaps the most insightful assessment of the England opener’s psychological and technical wellbeing came in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of the Urn at the WACA a fortnight ago, from Ricky Ponting, the former Aussie star whose views about captaincy and batting demand maximum respect.
Talking specifically about the way Cook was dismissed in England’s second innings, prodding a fullish ball back to where Josh Hazlewood made a brilliant return catch, Ponting compared it to how he might have played a similar delivery when in his pomp.
“The weight is back,” Ponting said on BT Sport. “Last week we showed a highlights package of his brilliant hundred in Adelaide in 2010 and to that sort of ball he would have been on the front foot, leant into it and just worked it, wide of mid-on, probably for four.
“You look at the two batsmen in their second innings, James Vince and Cook; one (Vince) with nothing to lose, where he goes out, thinks this could be my last chance, I’ve got to be really positive, I’m going to go on the front foot and play my shots.
“I’m looking at Cook the other way; he feels he’s got everything to lose right now and he’s in a more defensive mind-set where he’s protecting his stumps, that’s all he’s thinking about – not taking his weight towards the ball.
“That’s the only way he’s going to get out of it; to stop thinking about getting out and start thinking about scoring runs.
“I’ve been there,” Ponting explained.
“I was like that the last couple of years I played. I was more worried about getting out than just getting out there and playing.
“It wasn’t about my average. I wanted to finish my career in such a good way. I wanted to play well enough to keep myself in the team and to be able to teach youngsters the right way to go about things, that was my intent.
“I’d just gone away from the things that had made me successful earlier on and looking at the way Cooky is batting now I’d say he was in a pretty similar mind-set.”
Cook has been here many times before, but Ponting’s words bring to mind the time when his slump in form and confidence was so pronounced that some critics were calling for him to be dropped, among them the former England coach Duncan Fletcher.
When he failed again in the first innings of the third Test of the 2010 summer series against Pakistan at the Oval, Cook admitted he believed he was one more low score from the drop and, in all likelihood, missing the upcoming Ashes trip.
Head stuffed full of what he should or shouldn’t be doing at the crease he decided it was hit or bust, rode outrageous luck and finished with 110, albeit in a losing cause.
Not only did he make the plane to Australia, he came back with 766 runs at 127.67 and three hundreds, the main reason why, after six horror shows England won the Ashes in Australia for the first time since 1986-7.
Sadly for him and for England it is too late for a similar transformation to make the difference for them this time, but maybe, as Ponting suggests, Cook should consider going out to bat at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day as though he has nothing to lose, rather than everything. Easier said than done against this high class Aussie attack, but it might just be worth a go.
*This article was originally featured in The Cricket Paper’s 22 December 2017 edition.