No hiding place for Cook, whose jumbled thinking is hurting his side

Derek Pringle looks at England’s shortcomings in India and questions the methods of their skipper, whose lack of faith and adventure is costing his side

As England briefly escape their feverish tour of India for some rest and relaxation in Dubai, they will have time to ponder the confusion that has engulfed them from the moment they arrived in Mumbai four weeks ago.

From selections of the squad to the tactics used, this has been a Test series where the captain, Alastair Cook, has trusted few of his players and even fewer of his instincts.

Having emerged unexpectedly triumphant from the corresponding tour of India four years ago, Cook has been unsure whether England should approach this one as defending champions, possibles, or no-hopers. The uncertainty has led to a three-way fudge which has been reflected in his tactics as well as his pronouncements to the media.

If the captain is confused then it is almost certain that his players will be too, especially after the first Test in Rajkot where England dominated the match for four days only to settle for the ‘safety first’ haven of a draw.

Instead of setting India 270 off 70 overs on the final day, Cook opted to leave them 309 off 56 overs. England had them in trouble at 132 for six, but could not clinch victory after they ran out of time and steam.

The message that decision sent out, apart from Cook’s lack of adventure (and we are not talking about him taking anything like a reckless gamble here), was that he did not trust his bowlers. Instead of basing his computations on a best case scenario for them, he based it on a worst one. Indeed, his suspicion that he did not trust any of the spin bowlers was evident by England selecting three of them and then Cook deploying them as if by a roll of the dice.

Since then, Adil Rashid has emerged as a more reliable bowler who now appears to have won his captain’s trust, but that was not the case in Rajkot where Rashid only came on in India’s second innings after Zafar Ansari and Moeen Ali had already bowled.

The thinking still seems jumbled. Gareth Batty was selected at the age of 39 because he has been the premier spinner in county cricket over the past four years and has 20 years’ experience at the top level. But having begun as Cook’s number one in Bangladesh, where he was given the new ball in Chittagong, he has quickly fallen from grace to the point where he will only get a game if two of the other spinners are injured.

Another thing that is puzzling about Cook’s timidity at giving his team more time to bowl out India on the final day at Rajkot is that he knew how difficult it was to bat on a fifth-day pitch there, especially if you needed to play big shots to push the score along. He and Haseeb Hameed had played out of their skins to get England into a dominant position only for him to doubt his bowlers at the crucial moment.

Chances to win in India do not present themselves often to visiting teams. You get the impression that England surprised themselves by their excellence in Rajkot, after fearing the worst following their travails on turning pitches in Bangladesh. But instead of turning their unexpected advantage into a strategic one by winning the match, they appeared happy to head for the next Test still level pegging, pride intact and spouting that old cliched guff about holding the psychological advantage.

The next Test, at Visakhapatnam, followed with a template that has enabled India to win scores of Tests at home over the years. A sluggish, low-bouncing pitch, solid at first but turning more from day three on, saw the home side win the toss and slowly apply the double tourniquet of big runs on the board and then spinners probing the cracks, which had begun to multiply both on the pitch and in the minds of England’s batsmen.

It was, after England went down by 246 runs, their largest ever defeat by runs against India. According to Cook, it was a match decided by the designation of the toss, which India won. Yet Cook wasn’t so certain after the next Test in Mohali, where he won the toss but lost the game, this time by eight wickets.

Cook had his chances there too, if not as clear cut as in Rajkot, then certainly to get England into a dominant position from which they might win, something of a forlorn hope after they were dismissed for 283 batting first. But having reduced India to 204 for six in their first innings, he sat back and waited for them to continue to donate their wickets, which they did not. Instead, the situation demanded a more proactive response involving some sustained aggression from England’s fast bowlers and Cook’s fielding positions.

Despite Cook having captained England more times in Tests than any other, he is no veteran when dealing with the media. But if you accept that there may have been a level of nervousness at the start of his tenure, on which to pin responsibility for his lack of clarity, it should have gone by now. In a bid to perhaps calm his own players after defeat in the 2nd Test, he said that India were not a team of “Supermen”. After losing in Mohali, it was that England were not scuttled by “magic balls”. By talking about the opposition he is breaking his own rules. For years the standard response from Cook to any vaguely leading question about opponents was: “We do not worry about what they can do, only what we can do.” Well, they need to do it fast if they are to salvage anything from this series.

England have the means. Indeed, in Cook and Joe Root they possess two of the best top-order batsmen in world cricket, while Ben Stokes is the best all-rounder and Jonny Bairstow the best wicket-keeper batsman. Then we have James Anderson and Stuart Broad, arguably the best opening bowlers at present. That is six of the side in the top percentile, which is enough class to win providing not too many mistakes are made.

After a bit of shopping in Dubai, it will be up to the captain and coach to get the thoroughbreds to perform somewhere near their peak. If they don’t, this tour could finish as badly as many of its predecessors.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, December 2 2016

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