Was Alastair Cook right not to enforce the follow-on? I think he was.
Much of the debate has centred around the notion that Cook’s motive was defensive – in other words, to avoid losing the match. This is a red herring. The danger of enforcing is not defeat (which has happened three times out of 299 follow-ons), but a draw.
More often that we might realise, an enforcement can actually slow down your progress towards winning the match. Think about the many recent occasions (especially at Lord’s) when England have enforced, but found the second innings much harder work than the first. The jeopardy of the match situation has been diluted, and the mood changes. In turn, the bowling loses its fizz and the batsmen, who now have less to lose, play with more freedom and confidence.
In the 2008 Lord’s test against South Africa, we enforced the follow-on with the tourists 386 behind. They responded by batting out the rest of the game, to finish at 393-3. Two years previously, at the same ground, we made Sri Lanka follow-on 359 behind. Again, they batted for the rest of the match to draw the test.
Looked at in this light, non-enforcement is a positive move. By doing so, you rub your opponents’ noses in the scale of their arrears by widening the gulf ever further. If you make them bat again, they have something to aim at and play for – if you make them bowl, they don’t.
Whether Cook had this positive intent in mind when he made the decision is something we can only guess at. Perhaps his intentions were indeed defensive, but more likely he hoped to give his batsmen a final chance of some middle practice before the Ashes – not that that did Nick Compton much good.
Cook’s brisk and forthright approach to his own innings yesterday was good to see, as he shook off his inertia for the first time this series, but you can understand why, regrettably, Trott felt hidebound. In one sense, with his place hardly in danger, it would have been better for him to take on the bowling more aggressively and aquire some momentum. In another, he must be conscious that too often recently he has been dismissed in his thirties – and his anxiety to progress from a start to a substanial score must have hindered his expressiveness. But in view of the match situation and depleted Kiwi attack, it did still seem strange.
Barring a weather disaster, I think we shall still win this match, but it will be revealing to see how Cook times his declaration. Before then, Trott and Bell must exploit this precious opportunity to get their juices flowing and feel confident again about their rhythm and fluency. The more you think about it, the more likely it seems that at this rate it will be Bell who makes way for KP in July.