Will captain Cook be England’s Achilles heel?

Date: June 1, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

CRICKET-ENG-AUS-ASHESIn its pomp the West Indies made targeting the opposition captain an art form.

More than any other batsman in the opposing line-up it was the skipper who felt the physical might of the Windies pace attack. Other teams have certainly followed suit with the psychology of the exercise well founded.

Getting the opposition captain – more often than not a batsman – under pressure can provide advantages other than merely reducing his input on the scoreboard.

A team can become listless when its skipper is floundering. The man in question, burdened by the fact he is not contributing, can lead to a less than clear head in the field which at times affects his decision making and fielding.

Hence, there is little question that Australia will make Alastair Cook a prime target in the forthcoming Ashes series.

Since the first Test of the last Ashes series in England Cook’s form has been modest. In 19 Tests and 35 innings he has failed to post a century while his strike rate has been a pedestrian 41.5 while averaging a mere 32.1 – hardly the numbers you desire from an opening batsman, let alone one who is also the team leader.

His stats prior to July 2013 had him in stellar company – 92 Tests for 7524 runs at 49.2 and an England record of 25 centuries – and all before his 28th birthday.

It was not beyond the realm of possibility at that point for him to be second behind Sachin Tendulkar in terms of runs and centuries by career end. The past two years have scuppered that.

Cook’s early days at the helm were the most productive of his 111 Test career. After assuming the captaincy from Andrew Strauss in March 2010 he rewrote the record books with centuries in his first five Tests as skipper. It was during that golden period that he became the youngest player to post 7000 Test runs. Batting seemed simple.

But the last 25 months have seen just two centuries, both against New Zealand.

To add to Cook’s woes he was stripped of the one-day captaincy for this year’s World Cup and then omitted from the squad as well. He said at the time that he was “gutted to be left out”.

England is currently two Tests into a three-Test series in the Caribbean. The drawn first match provided Cook with no joy whatsoever as he made scores of 11 and 13 at North Sound.

When West Indies batted first in the second Test at St George’s Cook proceeded to give a life to Marlon Samuels on 32 when presented with a straight forward catch at first slip off Chris Jordan, allowing Samuels to reach 103. It was symptomatic of a man whose mind was perhaps elsewhere.

Innings of 76 and 59 not out eased the pressure a tad. Prior to those twin half-centuries he had averaged a paltry 28.8 in his previous 18 Tests.

The final Test, starting on Friday at Bridgetown, is a vital one for Cook on both a team and personal front. Another solid match with the willow will see him start the northern summer with much needed confidence.

However, a return to his efforts in the opening Test against the Windies will again have him under pressure heading into the two home Tests against New Zealand, his last series ahead of July’s first Ashes Test at Cardiff.

In the lead-in to the Windies series he spent inordinate time with his long-time mentor Graham Gooch. After analysing videotape it was decided that he move to a more open stance to allow him to more easily access the on-side while giving him a clearer determination of where his off-stump was.

Cook’s captaincy of late has been less formulaic but no matter how good his captaincy is it is runs that matter most.

The move to recall Jonathan Trott to the side as an opener for the current series has hardly been a success with his four innings to date producing a mere 63 runs.

By the time Cardiff rolls around it is imperative for England that its opening pair is on-song and equal to the task against a likely pace barrage comprising Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and Ryan Harris.

Australia knows all too well the threat that Cook can provide.

In the 2010-11 Ashes series in Australia he made a mockery of the bowling as his cover driving and authoritative cross-bat shots ruled the day. An innings of 235 not out in the opening Test at the Gabba laid the foundation for a 766-run series at an average of 127.7.

Cook is an earnest, thoughtful character who will be fully aware of where he is at and what still needs to be done. He sits second on England’s list of all-time Test run-scorers with another 319 needed to see him surpass Gooch.

Life is not as easy for Cook nowadays but as was the case when he burst onto the scene the future is firmly in his hands.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 30 April 2015, soliciting 39 comments