Cook’s Date With Destiny Arrives Courtesy of Trott and Bell

Captain Delivers England’s First Series Victory in India for 27 Years, for the Home Team the Loss is Nothing Less than an Intervention 

When Alastair Cook was born on December 25th 1984 David Gower’s England were on the verge of a famous victory in India, eventually winning the series 2-1 on January 18th 1985. Cook was only 24 days old. Until today it was the last time an England side had seen a test victory on the subcontinent. Battling centuries from Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott on the fifth afternoon at Nagpur provided the decisive blows to a frustrated Indian side and secured the series for England 2-1. This series win is Cook’s first as full-time captain. It appears his Christmas and birthday presents have been delivered early this year.

“Everyone in the squad can be very proud, especially after Ahmedabad and that heavy defeat. The guys who played a couple of games all made a difference and the amount of effort the guys have put in for me, I can’t ask any more.” Alastair Cook talking after the match

England’s seemingly interminable desire and professionalism under the guidance of a dynamic, calm and authoritative captain in Alastair Cook was simply too much for India. Although they were late to the party in this series, Trott and Bell produced two innings that were indicative of the mongrel in this England team, both in timing and substance. Though out of form, they both found a way to deliver when Cook needed them most, albeit doggedly and unattractively. India were ground out of the contest which teetered on the edge of interesting when England were 100-3 on day four.

MS Dhoni’s side had to produce a win in this match to draw the series at 2-2 and avoid India’s first home defeat in tests since Australia toured Steve Waugh’s “final frontier” in 2004-2005. With this in mind, prior to the match the Indian captain contributed to the ongoing melee of rhetoric surrounding pitch conditions in this series, requesting a track that would guarantee a result either way to help India’s chances of rolling England over. The wicket at Nagpur ultimately became slow and progressively tame as the match went on, subsequently aiding the tourists’ mission to simply avoid defeat.

During the live commentary on the fifth afternoon at Nagpur former England captain and stalwart Geoffrey Boycott, never usually at a loss for words, said, “I’d like a bat on this [wicket].” While this is arguably his favourite turn of phrase when England’s batsmen succeed or fail there cannot be too many fifth day wickets in India that even a wily 72-year-old would fancy themselves on. Test matches would become extinct if all wickets around the world were this dull.

When England batted in the first innings they fought their way to a competitive score of 330 in what were arguably the worst of the conditions. The Indian bowlers extracted schizophrenic bounce, occasional seam movement and unpredictable amounts of turn from the pitch. Kevin Pietersen claimed the wicket was the hardest he had ever batted on, a worthy assessment given the enigmatic number four’s unusually low strike rate during his first innings 73. Batting conditions then gradually slipped into the realm of the lifeless and the stodgy. On occasion the run rate from both team’s batsmen was truly coma inspiring, enabling England to secure a series in which they have come back hard after a heavy defeat and defied the odds, the conditions and the partisan home crowds.

Since the first test in Ahmedabad there has been a vast difference in quality between England and India. The hosts let themselves down by lacking intensity in the field and professionalism with the bat. Above all however India’s seemingly unstoppable downfall of late has risen from a profound lack of adaptability and honesty. Ironically, while the subcontinental conditions have helped create a fortress of India, the profound over reliance on them has led to India’s slide.

During and after embarrassingly one-sided exchanges in England and then Australia Indian players, namely Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir, demanded “rank turners” for touring teams and claimed that green-top wickets were created specifically to curb India’s powerful batsmen when they played abroad. It is now clear that defiant petulance has failed to cover up the fact that defeat at home was coming sooner rather than later. Indian teams of yore, particularly in the fifteen years between 1995-2010, rarely produced results in foreign series but they would always compete with vigour. They drew against Steve Waugh’s Australians in Australia and registered a 1-0 in England in that time. The turn in fortunes of late has been remarkable.

No team could harbour the hope that their home conditions were so irreconcilably different to those abroad, that simply playing in them would be enough to bridge the cavernous 4-0 void that existed in England’s favour prior to this series. India did and it showed.

When denial can no longer cover up your own inescapable inadequacies, eventually, failure will rear its ugly head and bring you plummeting down to earth with truly biblical force. England have a habit of late of performing interventions for previously untouchable sides whilst touring the world. They did it to Australia. The convincing thrashing of the hosts 3-1 (which could easily have been 4-0 but for Mitchell Johnson’s heroics in Perth) triggered Cricket Australia’s purge of staff, ineffective policies and players alike. This was better known as The Argus Review. India will now have time for a media led feeding frenzy to settle in and will undoubtedly be forced into a state of self-reflection.

England meanwhile can reflect comfortably on their achievements. They battled with chutzpah and team spirit to overcome India after being humiliated in Ahmedabad and going 1-0 down in the series. To overstate India’s demise is not to take anything away from Alastair Cook’s team, who, if anything on this tour, have adapted to adversity with more zeal than a chameleon trapped in front of a painter’s colour chart.

From left: Anderson, Swann and Cook, courtesy of Getty Images and BBC

From left: Anderson, Swann and Cook, courtesy of Getty Images and BBC

James Rowland

An Ancient Battle of Two Teams is Already Heating Up Courtesy of Cook and Clarke

With back-to-back Ashes series looming in 2013 it is the beginning of a new era for both England and Australia. We are waiting and the world is watching Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke. The race is on to see which captain can assemble their best team and persist with their own superlative form.

In truth it has been difficult to look at any cricket in 2012 and not watch Clarke or Cook. Both have spent more time in the middle than any other batsmen in world cricket of late. They are the leading run scorers this calendar year, they have recently been tasked with the leadership of their teams and both hail from entirely different thought processes.

In the white shorts, from the northern hemisphere home of cricket in England, Cook spent years as an apprentice in the school of Strauss. Reserved, traditional and charming on and off the field, Andrew Strauss was a great spokesman for the gentlemenly approach in the sport. Cook has taken this a step forward in his ice-cool presence with or without the bat, a hint of testosterone fuelled positivity and a freakish inability to sweat.

England's new captain Alastair Cook

In the yellow shorts, from the land down under, Clarke spent years in a joint  honours scholarship of Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting. The former preaching aggression, dynamism and an entrepreneurial instinct for victory and the latter, a working man’s rigidity, toughness, resolve and conservatism. Clarke has evolved into a dangerous fusion of the two. The Australian captain harnesses a singleminded will to win via aggression and experimentation alongside a fiercely pig-headed approach to scoring runs.

Australia's captain Michael Clarke

Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, despite their heritage, do share some attributes. They both seem to buy the ‘daddy hundred’ theory of kicking on past three figures, they share a fresh optimism and more importantly they have both improved beyond the realms of expectation once awarded the captaincy.

Leadership can have an adverse affect on cricketers. Some players are born to excel within the ranks and others to thrive on the responsibility of inspiring their teams from the front. Flintoff’s maverick skill-set suffered immeasurably under the spotlight of the captaincy for England while Ricky Ponting’s game went from strength to strength, albeit before Australia’s dominance began to crumble. Cook and Clarke have both performed extremely well as captains.

Alastair Cook’s stats as England captain: 5 tests, 5 hundreds, 889 runs at an average of 127 with a high score of 190.

Michael Clarke’s stats as Australia captain: 18 tests, 7 hundreds, 1976 runs at an average of 68.14 as well as four double-hundreds and a high score of 329*.

Having just become the youngest player in the history of the game to score 7000 test runs Alastair Cook was hardly struggling prior to the captaincy. The greater improvement has come with Michael Clarke. Where he was a classy middle-order contributor he is now Australia’s lynchpin as Ricky Ponting or Steve Waugh before him. He is also the top run-scorer in test cricket so far this year with 1358 runs in 9 matches at an average of 104.46. Cook is close behind him however, and if the Englishman’s form continues in this series with India he could conceivably finish 2012 on top.

As far as their achievements are helping the two teams, Cook is ahead of Clarke. Scoring so many runs at the top of the order has an undeniably confidence building effect on the rest of the batting order. Whereas Clarke’s runs have come when the top order has often failed. You could argue this only makes his runs more valuable, however setting the tone is a more secure and responsible approach rather than mounting a rescue operation. Clarke should probably promote himself to number three and back himself to protect the younger men.

In any case, if Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook maintain their career and captaincy form into next year, the Ashes series will carry a fascinating sub-plot. The captains will be battling for team and individual supremacy. It will be the season of run scoring, outfoxing each other in the field and out classing each other in the press conferences.

James Rowland

Monty’s Menacing New Approach has India and Graeme Swann in Danger

England ahead on day one as India close on 273-7 in Kolkata and the ever eccentric Monty Panesar proves he is a man for all occasions.

His ear-to-ear grin used to portray nothing more than a man who fielded the cricket ball like a child chasing a lollipop on a string, and his jovial celebrations at taking a wicket always felt debutant-esque, however Monty Panesar now seems a changed man. His grin carries a whiff of menace rather than cheerful sincerity these days. Maybe his determination has grown alongside his maturity during the long absence from the team.

After his whirlwind eleven wicket haul in Mumbai Monty Panesar was finally a certain selection for Alastair Cook’s attack. Although the conditions offered up none of the steep turn and bounce of the last test, the smiling Sikh from Luton showed guile, control and determination to claim 2-74 from 35 overs at only 2.11 runs an over. Panesar’s renewed verve with the ball was a great asset to the rest of the England attack who benefitted from the pressure he exercised over the Indians. James Anderson particularly thrived in otherwise innocuous circumstances for seamers, claiming 3-68 from his 21 overs.

On a docile pitch at Eden Gardens MS Dhoni could have been forgiven for licking his lips at the beginning of the day’s play when he won the toss and elected to bat. In India’s previous three matches on the same ground they have plundered over 600 runs in each of their first innings.

After the pre-match conjecture over the pitch conditions for this match, complaints of Dhoni’s ‘immorality’ and England’s team speculation, the 22 yard strip at Eden Gardens offered very little spark. It simply looked dry, rock hard and flat. Hardly revolutionary conditions for this ground or Indian grounds in general. However following the groundsman, Prabir Mukherjee, claiming the track would reward good cricket the England attack bowled exceptionally well as a group. They stuck to their plans well and fought the benign offering with attritional lines and lengths. While you could argue several of the Indians’ dismissals were a little soft, it was just reward for England’s unrelenting approach.

Monty Panesar is creating a wide-spread problem for the Indians and the English selectors alike. His display today showed he could greatly benefit England on tracks that don’t necessarily have to be disintegrating by the delivery. Not only did he out bowl Graeme Swann, he was rewarded for his testing bowling by being given 35 overs from his captain to Swann’s meagre 14. This may only be representative of the fact that India’s batting lineup is full of right handers, but Panesar’s panache for penetrative and containing bowling clearly caught Cook’s eye.

More important than a little favouritism from the captain though are Monty’s statistics so far this series. In three innings Monty has 13 wickets from 104 overs with only 284 runs conceded. In five innings Swann has 15 wickets from 124.5 overs with 349 runs conceded. Monty’s average and economy rate are both superior to Graeme Swann’s. It is not entirely straight forward given that Swann had to bowl in the first test without the support of another spinner. It would be foolish to believe Panesar’s 11 wickets at Mumbai weren’t aided by the presence of Swann at the other end, especially in India’s second innings.

The rest of this test will be an important watershed for both bowlers. If Panesar continues to outfox Swann, regardless of the conditions, England cricket might be presented with a desirable dilemma between their spinners looking forward.

Monty has surprised everyone on this tour of India. Dhoni declared his left-arm spin ‘the difference’ in Mumbai and he has been a revelation thus far given his status of late as England’s plan B spinner. Whether he still fields like a drunken uncle fondling the gravy ladle on Christmas Day remains to be seen, but his much improved bowling might be enough to force a surprise comeback as England’s number-one spinner. Panesar can also take heart from the fact that his wily eccentricity and ability to scythe through the home batting lineup has fans here in India. His grandparents live in Ludhiana, albeit 1850km away from Kolkata, and are swapping partisan national pride for family support. Panesar’s 85-year-old grandfather Hari Singh, said, “It was heartening to see him get the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar.”

What doesn’t Monty have going for him on this tour?

James Rowland

I Woke Up and Thought it was 1984: Captain Cooks Up a Cold Dish of Revenge on Spicy Mumbai Pitch

This is time travel minus the moustaches and David Gower’s blonde perm. There are distinct echoes of 1984 as England’s spinners conjure up mischief in Mumbai and look set to level the series.

Eight days before Alastair Cook was born in 1984 England’s cricketers levelled the series with India after superlative performances by their spinners Phil Edmonds and Patrick Pocock. The left-arm and right-arm combination worked wonders then and achieved the same, if not better, results today in Mumbai. India were reduced to 117-7 with a lead of only 31 runs after Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann reaped havoc on a track offering turn and bounce, carving through India’s top order.

The foundation for England’s success was laid by Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen. The two shared a partnership of 206 for the third wicket and each scored centuries as England established a valuable 86 run lead over the Indians. Where Pietersen was back to his enterprising and enigmatic best, Cook was yet again the father figure of England’s innings. In the vain of a captain, Cook’s five hour long, 122 run vigil provided stability and responsibility at the top of a batting line-up that never seems far from imploding on the subcontinent.

“When you’ve got a guy at the top of the order with such a cool, calm head on him, who is also leading the guys, it’s a very reassuring thing to have.” Graeme Swann on Alastair Cook’s batting as captain

Funnily enough the only Indian batsman to offer any substantial resistance on day three was Gautam Gambhir. Though short of form the Indian opener showed true grit during his 53 not out and India will hope he can carry them to a competitive total on day four. Following harrowingly unsuccessful tours of England and Australia, in an ill-advised bout of bitterness, Gambhir demanded that “rank turners” be prepared for touring teams in India. It seems fitting that he looked the only Indian batsman capable of coping with the spin-friendly surface in Mumbai and is now somewhat stranded at the top, as Alastair Cook has been at times during the series.

A year after England were humiliated 5-0 by India during their one-day series on the subcontinent, and the invariable theme of capitulations against spin began, Cook is leading the team once again. As England’s test match captain however, his icy cold temperament is driving him and other members of this England team to excel. Pietersen seemed like a boy looking to impress his new school headmaster at times during his partnership with Cook. Evidently Graham Swann also enjoys the cool, authoritative stability his captain provides with the bat and in the field.

This is no 80s Tom Cruise film. However, led by their very own own ‘Iceman’ and ‘Maverick’ in Cook and Pietersen, England find themselves in a very strong position against India. Throw in an unlikely come-back theme in Panesar’s ten wicket haul and we could all begin sprouting perms and smutty facial hair by the end of the series. While there is a long way to go, should England secure victory in the trying conditions they are so well documented as failing in, this test could prove a momentum reversing moment.

The England of yore, led by David Gower, went on to win their series in India after levelling it at 1-1. In doing so they entered cricketing folklore as the only team to have beaten India at home after going behind. In Cook’s lifetime, the men of the 1984/85 tour have retained their status as the last England team to win a series in India at all. Curiously enough the last day of this series, December 17th,  will mark the 28th anniversary of the day Gower’s men levelled their series all those years ago.

If his form does not abandon him and more of his team follow his gleaming example, by the time Alastair Cook turns 28, (incidentally he was born on Christmas day 1984) he could have re-written history as the first Englishman to gain more than humble pie on a tour of India. The England captain probably wouldn’t begrudge people doubling up on presents for his big day should he succeed in India. If nothing else, there is a financial motivation right there for Cook’s team mates.

James Rowland

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends: Captain’s Fight Fails to Deflate Fortress India

“Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit, To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.” William Shakespeare, Henry V

Albeit more eloquent than Geoffrey Boycott’s commentaries on what is required from test batsmen, the sentiment from Henry V is virtually the same. Boycott rightly commented that aside from Alastair Cook and Matt Prior England surrendered far too easily in their first innings against India having been bowled out for 191. He said, “It was like trying to climb Mount Everest from then on.”

Alastair Cook’s monumental grit and determination at the batting crease in this match was not a work of literature, however every feverish characteristic he displayed was of Shakespearean grandeur. The England captain spent 483 balls at the crease for a total of 217 runs across both his innings in the first test against India. To put this in perspective, the other five batsmen in the top six, also across both innings, spent 383 balls at the crease for a combined total of 114 runs. This paints an ugly picture of a middle order in dire straits when batting in subcontinental conditions.

The fact that England took the match to day five but lost by an enormous margin of nine wickets nonetheless, is only indicative of the fact that leading from the front counts for little if the team do not follow. If Henry V had charged solo into the breach without his dear friends I suspect the outcome would have been somewhat different.

“Cook played fantastically and they [the England batsmen] should all emulate him.” Geoffrey Boycott on the approach to batting on Indian wickets. 

Few of the English batsmen looked capable of embodying the spirit needed to fight India’s mercenary approach. This was no clearer than when Ian Bell charged down the wicket at Pragyan Ojha on his first ball only to be caught in the deep by Sachin Tendulkar. It was clearly a moment when Bell’s mental fragility against playing quality spin led him to believe the kamikaze approach was best.

The home tactic characterised by partisan multitudes in the stands, abrasive wickets in the centre and skilful spinners bowling on them has made a fortress of India for touring teams of late. Despite the efforts of Matthew Prior, who provided good support for his captain, India eventually rollicked home on the fifth day after their left-arm spinner, Pragyan Ojha, claimed match figures of 9-165.

Despite England’s batting failure Cook will also be concerned about the lack of firepower from his attack, allowing India to saunter to their first innings total 521-8 declared. “Clearly we’re going to have to look at our selection,” Cook admitted yesterday. Monty Panesar will almost certainly win a bowling position as the second spinner in the next test. Cook may also consider changing the fabric of the batting lineup with Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Samit Patel all performing poorly in this match. Bell is back in England currently to be with his new born child and it is not clear if he will be back for the second test. Of the three Samit Patel is the most likely to make way, despite his good form in the warm up games, as the return of Panesar will render his left-arm spin surplus to requirements.

Ultimately though England’s problems run deeper than a selection error. The batsmen in particular must follow their captain’s lead and be prepared to alter their approach, mentally and physically, toward playing good quality spin. This side has responded well to pressure in the past and Cook will hope that he is not fighting all the battles himself during the second test, or all England will get from this tour is a bitter aftertaste.

James Rowland