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In the final piece of our three-part series cataloging the ups and downs of Alastair Cook’s career as captain, we examine 2016 as a Test year…
When the sun rose over Cape Town’s scenic Newlands Cricket Ground at the turn of the year, Alastair Cook held onto his hopes of registering back-to-back series triumphs having won the first Test in Durban in the final week of 2015.
Not since the Ashes stretching back eight series had Cook been able to gain traction in the Test rankings. Rankings may not matter to some but it’s important to point out that the South Africans were the no1 Test team in the world after winning 10 of their previous 14 series.
Standing on the ground built by their win at Kingsmead, the Cape Town Test would be remembered for Ben Stokes’ display of strength normally reserved for Greek mythology.
The all-rounder capitalised on the small boundary to hit 30 fours and 11 sixes on his way to a maiden double hundred.
Proving his batting pedigree when already a settled member of Cook’s bowling arsenal, Stokes along with Jonny Bairstow (150*) gave England a commanding first innings score when they declared shortly after lunch on 629-6.
Cook’s hopes of enforcing the follow-on as England took to the field would be dealt with a hammer-blow from Proteas captain Hashim Amla.
A double century from Amla, the second of the match, and a brilliant century from Temba Bavuma in the middle-order saw South Africa eat into England’s score as well as the time clock, keeping Cook in the field for a marathon 211 overs.
Labouring to within two runs of England total, Amla declared on 627-7 in the evening session of Day 4 to leave the remaining day’s play as something of an also-ran after four days of eclectic cricket.
In the two previous articles written, topics of Cook’s relationship with the ECB and the frequent turnover of no2 opening batsman were discussed.
In 2016, Cook would face frustrations akin to going out for dinner at a restaurant and discovering the venue has booked an amateur magician.
But as so often with Cook’s tenure frustrations were occasionally offset by moments to celebrate.
With the tourists midway through their four-test series holding the lead at 1-0 they travelled to the Wanderers in Johannesburg seeking to inflict a defeat on a South Africa side which could bend but very rarely break.
Known for its intimidating atmosphere, almost all of South Africa’s selected XI batted their way to starts with six batsman making their way into the 20s.
But Cook rotated his bowlers well to restrict the innings top-scorer Dean Elgar to 46, before he edged behind off the spin of Moeen Ali. Regardless of this South Africa somehow posted a total of 313.
In reply, Cook’s troubles at the top of the order continued as he, Alex Hales, and Nick Compton added 45 runs between them.
Runs from Root (110) and Stokes (58) helped England to 323 all out as Kagiso Rabada claimed five-fer in front of a home crowd.
Where the Cape Town Test will be remembered by the Barmy Army for Stokes’s Herculean strokeplay, Johannesburg will be remembered for Stuart Broad’s electrified six-over spell.
Inspired by coach Trevor Bayliss and guided by Cook, who revealed Bayliss had given the team a ‘kick up the arse’ at lunch when South Africa were 16-0, Broad toyed with his prey with some audacious out-swing bowling.
Turning match-winner with figures of 6-4-5-5 for his six-over charge after lunch, Broad bruised South Africa to 83 all out.
England’s chase for their target of 73 was a formality, and one that would provide Cook with a 2-1 victory to get what would be a gruelling 2016 off to an ideal start.
Welcoming Sri Lanka and Pakistan for two home Test series would cause the frailty of England’s batting line-up, both middle and top-order, to open into a chasm.
Cook banked yet another record to prove his testament as one of England’s greatest players by passing 10,000 runs in the third Test against Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street. A personal tally reached by the tender age of 31 years, 157 days.
Downing Angelo Mathews’ team 2-0 in a three-match series, England and Cook had achieved the set objective of recording back-to-back triumphs.
A glimpse of momentum setting Cook up for that all important tour to India to end the year – a destination which yielded one of his top moments when his captaincy was in its infancy in 2012.
Then came the bump in the road, not the first Cook had to ride.
England looked on at Pakistan arriving at Lord’s ready for the first Test with cortisone injections at the ready, as the media wrote about their over-reliance on elder statesmen Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan.
From where England were concerned age did not matter, as Misbah’s century would go to show, they still had to find an opener for Alastair Cook to partner with. What had started as Andy Flower’s problem, had become Peter Moores’ and now Trevor Bayliss’.
Papering over the cracks with the tried and tested Alex Hales and Gary Ballance, and hopeful the new vigour James Vince may bring with the bat. But it would be captain Cook and vice-captain Root who were to uphold the heavy burden of reliability.
Misbah and his squad of push-up exhibitionists were not to Cook’s taste in theatre, saying after the Pakistanis completed a 75-run victory at the Home of Cricket: ‘It’s never nice to lose at Lord’s and see the opposition like they were at the end. We’ll use that as motivation.”
England responded, winning at Old Trafford and Edgbaston to take a 2-1 lead heading into the climax at The Oval.
Pakistan knocked England back by an innings. 2-2. A series drawn from a winning position which greyed the momentum England had built during the first few months of the year.
Summer Tests over, next up was a trip to Bangladesh. A pre-cursor for the India tour that would allow the batsmen and spinners Ali and Adil Rashid to deconstruct their weaknesses and bring their strengths to the fore.
The unknown cocktail Bangladesh usually serve in the Test arena, compared to the more familiar and more easily defined challenges they faced from the Proteas and Pakistan, made this a tour which would leave Cook on the edge.
From the flat wicket at The Oval to Chittagong’s undesirable pitch. A track which provided a kind of bounce seen only in pinball machines.
Unsure in their footing, the batsmen were caught in a sticky mire.
Entertainment was assured and by the end of Day Four Bangladesh required 33 runs to beat England for the first time in their history; while Cook needed two wickets to dispel this likelihood.
Bangladesh added 11 runs to narrow in on their target but Cook found the breakthrough he was looking for, after throwing the ball to Ben Stokes.
Trapping Taijul Islam lbw for 16, Stokes ensured the Test was won two balls later as Bangladesh were bowled out 22 runs shy in their run chase.
As with Pakistan, England had avoided a series defeat and named two changes for Dhaka. With spinner Gareth Batty dropped in favour of Zafar Ansari and Stuart Broad (tendon injury) replaced by Steven Finn.
The batting line-up unchanged, Cook stood tall in chasing 273 for the second innings by making an unbroken 100 partnership with Ben Duckett.
Undone by the off-break of Mehedi Hasan to watch his counter-part walk, Cook stood in amazement as he witnessed three more wickets fall within the space of 15 deliveries.
Cook out to the 19-year-old Mehedi meant England were rocking at 124-4. But if Adil Rashid at no9 is a sign of the safeguard England had in batting their way to 273 then this Test was far from over.
Things are never that easy. Shakib Al Hasan joined Mehedi as a left-arm option and between them shared the remaining six wickets which would fall for 40 runs.
Tarnished with embarrassment at a first ever loss in Dhaka, Cook maintained it was not the worst defeat he had led the team to.
“It’s very easy sitting back and saying it’s just Bangladesh,” he said. “But on spinning wickets their bowlers are good, they’re experienced – I know one of them is only 19 but he is experienced in these conditions and very good. It has been really tough but I don’t think this is the toughest defeat I’ve had to bear.”
With little time to reflect analytically, Cook and coach Bayliss were left to think philosophically of this setback before India.
Looking ahead to the India tour, Bayliss was asked in Dhaka if the team could bounce back.
“We’ve shown in previous series we’ve been able to come back after losses and win” Bayliss replied. “We’ve got to dig deep and be able to play a very good team playing in their home conditions.
“We always knew it was going to be tough here but our toughest assignment was always going to be India.”
As the India tour still beckons unattractively in the memories of most England fans, it’s worth not recalling the shortfalls which led to the 4-0 victory for Virat Kohli’s side.
By this stage of Alastair Cook’s captaincy, England’s sticking points that stopped them from returning to the top of the ICC Test rankings were clear.
Gaps needing to be filled between Cook, Root, Ali, Stokes and Bairstow were porous.
The aforementioned Hales, Ballance and Vince were all ousted by the selectors for not overcoming their own inconsistencies.
The issue of spin is not one to disregard. England have failed to replace Graeme Swann in the same way they failed to replace Andrew Strauss. The difference between the two being Moeen Ali was afforded much more time to ease into his spin role than Sam Robson, Adam Lyth, or Alex Hales were as openers.
Cook’s tenure as captain never witnessed an episode of defeat that would befit him being removed by the ECB. Yet even if they wanted to, there is no name that pops up as a possible candidate.
Look at Kohli for India, Williamson for New Zealand, and Smith for Australia, and the long-running trend of batsmen making the best Test captains continues to breed upward progress.
Until the emergence of Joe Root over the past two years Cook risked isolation. Since Matt Prior’s forced retirement due to injury, there was no right-hand man to be found in the wicket-keeper or in the slip cordon as is now the case with Root.
With the disruptive Kevin Pietersen excised Cook had no uber-egos to deal with.
Instead, Cook had to work cohesion into a team fielding newly-capped or recalled players on a perpetual basis.
Despite the vast improvements made by England in one-day formats under Bayliss, Cook described the Test team’s development as ‘stagnating’ in the statement confirming his resignation.
At the end of a sapping tour to India, the introspection was etched on the face of Cook as he fielded questions over team performance and his future at the post-match presentation.
Conducting himself in a professional manner as always, Cook made a decision for himself as much as for the team.
Stepping onto dry land after battling a raging current for longer than any other England captain.
Read the perspectives of TCP columnists Derek Pringle, Paul Nixon, Peter Hayter and Alison Mitchell in tomorrow’s edition.