What is the difference between now and the last time England visited the Indian shores for a Test series? Yes, England find themselves under the cosh in India, 0-2 down in the five-match Test series, while four years ago, they had pulled a fast one on the hosts with a come-from-behind series victory. That's obvious. But what has led to this debacle for England is that their captain and batting mainstay Alastair Cook, unlike 2012, has not really got going.
Cook has nearly 11,000 runs in Test cricket – the highest for England, and at Mohali broke into the list of top-10 run-getters in Test history. He has 30 centuries in the longest version of the game, and many believe that if he can play even five-six years, given that he is only 31-years-old, he could really challenge Sachin Tendulkar's records. There is, therefore, no doubt that Cook is the pillar of England's batting. And just as a creaky pillar can't support a solid structure, a below-par showing by Cook against India so far, has put his side in big trouble.
But didn't he score a century in the first Test at Rajkot? That knock, along with the one by rookie opener Haseeb Hameed, helped his side put up a score that put the hosts under considerable pressure on the fifth day. Yet, there is every reason to feel that the England skipper has still not lived up to his billing. It is as much a commentary on his extraordinary batting abilities as the amount of expectations that he has to shoulder.
The expectations before the start of the series was that he would be able to reproduce his exploits of the 2012 series, when he almost scored hundreds at will. A lot is said about the scintillating 186 by Kevin Pietersen in the second Test at Mumbai four years ago, after going down in Ahmedabad. But people tend to forget Cook's contribution in that match. Cook got a century himself and shared a 206-run partnership with the marauding Pietersen, which put England in a commanding position. Cook, however, had reserved his best for the iconic Eden Gardens. His near-double ton in the third Test of the series helped England pile up an imposing 523. It was the last time that a visiting side scored 500 against India in India, before England did it again in the first Test of the ongoing series.
India had their backs to the wall from that point onwards, eventually losing the Test. Five hundred and sixty two runs in eight innings, with three centuries made the 2012 series one of the most memorable ones for Cook.
In the current series, however, Cook is yet to play an innings that makes a telling impact. An innings like the 122 at Mumbai, or the 190 at Kolkata in 2012, or the classy 294 against India again, a year earlier in Birmingham. He has a magnificent record in Tests in Asia (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and UAE), with over 2,500 runs in 51 innings with a healthy average of 55.04. This classifies him as a fine player of spin, which you can't often say of a batsman from outside the subcontinent.
His approach in the current series as a batsman (and captain), however, has been questionable. One feels he has gone too much into a shell facing the Indian spinners. Scoring 70-odd runs in 50 overs along with Hameed on Day 4 of the Vizag Test, may have been initially hailed as an act of defiance, which frustrated the Indians who were pushing for a victory. Defence was an important aspect in Test cricket, a number of people said. You have to play wars of attrition for long periods of time, they argued, and hailed Cook and Hameed for their temperament and patience. It was Test cricket of the very highest order, they said.
Evidently, Cook wanted to take the match deep into the last day, from where they could ensure a draw. But, when you go into a cocoon, it, in a way, exposes a defeatist mentality, and you allow the opposition to dictate terms. On a fast deteriorating pitch, against a top class spin attack, there is bound to be that one ball that will misbehave, or that one dream delivery, and you will be back in the hut. And that's what happened. Cook was eventually prised out by Ravindra Jadeja for 54, having spent over 200 minutes at the crease and faced nearly 200 balls.
Cook has looked woefully short of imagination and confidence in this series, which has been one of the big factors for England not doing as well as they should.
And he has been aware of his patchy form. "(I) haven’t been in the greatest form. Not had that rhythm in the nets, didn’t have it in Bangladesh, nor had it over here," he said after the Rajkot Test.
He has never been as flamboyant in his batting as his opposite number Virat Kohli, but he is effective and scores big hundreds. Kohli has already stolen a march on him with a match-winning 167 in Vizag. Cook now will have to get his act together and rally his team for an almighty push in the last two Tests. England have no chance to win the series, but what they can do is win the next two matches and draw the series, which would be a fantastic moral victory for them and a huge dent to the Indians' psyche.
A large part of the battle that Cook has to fight is one at the level of the mind, apart from that on the pitch. He has to believe and get his team to believe that they can dominate the Indian spinners and not accept defeat before even being defeated. Cook has shown time and again in the past that he has the wherewithal to do so, but he has been only a pale shadow of his real self in this series. Will the real Cook please stand up? His men turned things around from Mumbai the last time that they were in India. Would Mumbai prove lucky again for Cook and England? We will have to wait and see.