Trevor Bayliss has been England’s coach since July 2015. Since then we’ve played 25 tests with a generally attacking (or perhaps we should say ‘positive’) approach. Although results have been a little mixed, our players tend to play their best cricket on the front foot. Even Alastair Cook played in a relatively carefree way last summer.
Consequently it’s highly significant that, after eighteen months of Bayliss’s tenure, he’s suddenly found it necessary to say the following ahead of Mumbai:
The first three innings of this series we had a nice positive approach to the game and with our mental approach … probably the last three innings we have got away from that a little bit … we changed that mindset so it is more along the lines of survival …
It will be up to me to play a role there. Probably over the last few series Cooky has taken on more of a role there, which has been great. But I think for the coming couple of Tests it is time I stepped up to the mark to just remind the team how we have played when we have played well.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Why is Cook suddenly retreating from the positive approach that’s served England well (in the main) over the last eighteen months? Why did he bat so turgidly on the 5th morning in Rajkot when England had the chance to press for victory? Why does he look so, well, bloody knackered?
Although our skipper is normally a champion in Asian conditions, his form has been a little up and down this winter. He’s made just one ton (the aforementioned effort in Rajkot which some felt cost England the chance of victory) and he’s looked very vulnerable against spin – even though he usually plays spinners with great assurance.
Normally when Cook has a dip in form the problem is technical. His method isn’t exactly watertight (which he freely admits) so if something’s a little out of synch he can look uncoordinated at the crease. This time, however, I don’t see much wrong with his technique. His trigger movement is possibly off a tad but that doesn’t excuse missing straight balls that don’t spin (as he did in Mohali).
So if Cook’s technique is in reasonable order, there must be something else up. My working theory (as if you haven’t guessed it yet) is that Cook isn’t himself mentally. He’s either burned out or missing his family. And it’s not just his batting that’s suffering as a result. His captaincy and general demeanour in the field have also been subpar.
What’s more Cook’s dropping catches too – something that also happened to Ian Bell at the end of his England career. Perhaps, after the best part of a decade playing non-stop for England, Cook has ‘lost it’ the same way Bell did. Perhaps he simply doesn’t have the mental reserves or hunger to be as focused as he once was?
I’ve heard it argued that the captaincy is now weighting heavily on Alastair’s shoulders. After all, he’s dealt with a lot over the last couple of years: there’s been dips in the team’s form, dips in his own form, plus the political fallout from the Kevin Pietersen debacle. But does this really explain what’s happening to him now?
If one researches whether the captaincy has affected Cook, the logical place to start is his batting record since the Ashes whitewash. At first glance the evidence suggests not: since the end of the Sydney test in 2014, Captain Cook has produced a very solid return of 2873 runs at an average of 47 (which is pretty much in line with his career record).
Look a little closer, however, and things aren’t quite as simple. During this period Cook has scored just the five test centuries. That’s five tons in 66 test innings – not a particularly good return at all. In fact, the aforementioned Ian Bell made six test centuries in his last 66 test innings before being dumped like an old sofa the dog had urinated on.
Although some batsmen might be pleased with a century every 11 tests, this clearly isn’t good enough for a batsman of Alastair’s pedigree. After all, he registered his previous five centuries (all before the Ashes whitewash obviously) in just 16 test innings. And overall, of course, he’s scored 30 centuries in 249 innings (a rate of a century every eight tests).
So what does this tell us? Because Cook’s generally scoring runs but not making many centuries, he’s obviously getting in and then getting out a lot. This seems extraordinarily unusual for a player known for ‘going big’ and having immense powers of concentration.
This suggests that Alastair is indeed burned out and desperately needs a break. Luckily he’ll get one after this series (because of the Champions Trophy next year England won’t play another test until mid-summer). The question is, will the selectors strip him of the captaincy (or suggest he steps down) before then? The ECB love a good scapegoat.
The big question, of course, is whether Cook can summon up one more big performance, save England’s tour and perhaps save his status as captain at the same time. We desperately need big runs from the skipper at Mumbai but he simply hasn’t been able to produce thus far – even though he’s still as short as 7/2 to be our top scorer if you look at the India vs England 4th test batting market. Jonny Bairstow looks better value at 11/2 if you ask me.
My big worry is that England might simply implode at this juncture – much like they did in Australia last time (when Cook also suffered a crisis of form and leadership). Although I was initially quite bullish about our chances in Mumbai, Bayliss’s recent comments have really alarmed me. They suggest that Cook’s morale, and the team’s morale as a whole, is very low indeed. Why else would a coach who normally takes a backseat suddenly need to play a more active role in the dressing room?
I’m also a tad concerned that the buckpassing season has started. Bayliss has said a few times now that he doesn’t watch much county cricket – I don’t blame him for this by the way (he’s a busy man). When asked about Keaton Jennings’ prospects in Mumbai, Bayliss remarked “I’ve not seen him bat”. Excuse my cynicism but this sounds awfully like “don’t blame me if it all goes pear shaped guv … I don’t pick these blokes you know”.
Although I could be reading too much into Bayliss’s comments, his words are hardly on message. Where exactly is the sense of collective responsibility? It also suggests, to me at least, that England’s hierarchy aren’t on the same page. Why else would a coach keep reiterating that he’s simply doing his best with the cards dealt to him?
Overall I sense there’s a great deal of tension within the England camp. When the bloke most likely to be the next captain, Joe Root, is wheeled in front of the press to give the current skipper his backing you know the pressure is on. What’s more, I’m not convinced it will be straightforward for Cook to give up the captaincy and rejoin the rank and file. The next two test matches will probably determine his future as captain, but they could jeapordise his whole international career.
Because Cook is generally portrayed as being egoless and affable, people simply assume that Cook would fit seamlessly into a England team led by someone else. Personally I’m not so sure. I’m not saying that Cook would intentionally be a pain in the bum – I genuinely think he’d try to keep his head down – but it would create an incredibly awkward situation.
Just think about it for a second. How is the new captain going to become the fulcrum of the side, and gain respect and authority as a leader, when the bloke who’s got more experience (and more media allies) than anyone else is still sitting in the corner? Cook would probably try to help not hinder, but how would he know when to offer his assistance? How exactly would he offer words of encouragement in the dressing room without unintentionally eclipsing (or even undermining) the new skipper? And how do you stop the players looking to Cook (especially when things are tough) when they’ve become so used to doing so over the years?
I sense that Cook returning to the ranks as a player would be a bit like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair standing down as PM but returning to the front bench. It would seem unnatural; a demotion. Sometimes it’s hard to be ‘just one of the guys’ when you’ve been such a huge figure of authority for so long.
Although England captains have resigned and returned to the ranks in the past, they’ve generally passed the baton to someone of equal stature: think Gower handing over the reins to Gooch, or Stewart replacing Atherton. Unfortunately there’s nobody anywhere near as senior as Cook in the current dressing room (not a realistic alternative as captain anyway). Jimmy Anderson isn’t captaincy material and would you really want Stuart Broad in charge of the DRS reviews?
Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss were all giants of English cricket. When they resigned the captaincy they soon rode into the sunset. And not one of them, not one, was as senior as Cook is now. None of them played for so long nor scored the same amount of runs.
And that, my friends, is why England must get a result in Mumbai. If Cook has to stand down as captain, we might ultimately end up losing our most senior batsman too. And that’s something this team simply cannot afford to do.
Written in collaboration with Coral