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Did Alastair Cook's poor captaincy waste England’s golden opportunity?

By Chetan Narula at Lord's: Ben Stokes bowled the 17th over on day one of this second Test at Lord’s. Cheteshwar Pujara was on strike to Stokes, looking to leave as many deliveries as possible.

Four slips were in place, with a gully, fine leg, a fielder at extra cover and one at a mid-wicket, both in slightly aggressive positions hoping to catch anything that could come their way. There was one odd field placing though – deep square leg.

Stokes bowled five deliveries outside off and Pujara let them all go. The sixth one nipped in and the batsman played on the legside but missed. If he had connected, it could have gone for four but for that fielder. At 34/1, on a green-top wicket unlike any in recent memory, the Indians were not in any hurry to score. At this early juncture in the game, it was simply astonishing to see that fielder in the deep.

It wasn’t the only absurd point of the morning session. For the first nine overs, James Anderson and Stuart Broad did not bowl one delivery that would have gone on to the hit the stumps. Not one, and the only wicket they got in this interim, that of Shikhar Dhawan was down to some great away swing from Anderson.

It was no surprise that Alastair Cook opted to bowl first on this pitch. Even if it flattened out after 20 overs – as Kevin Pietersen so vehemently tweeted – anyone would take that chance and try to blow the opposition away with the new ball. More than anything, England had been crying out loud for such a wicket all summer, after three placid tracks in three Tests.

File photo of England cricket captain Alastair Cook. AP

File photo of England cricket captain Alastair Cook. AP

This was a god-sent pitch, gift wrapped in Lord’s hallowed green turf. The ball is keeping fresh, exhibiting conventional swing through the day with a higher percentage of wicket-taking deliveries. It was their one chance to win the Test on day one itself. Perhaps they blew it.

It happened in two parts. First, in the morning session, their bowlers were all over the place with their line and length. “Compared to Trent Bridge, there was some excessive movement in the first session. We were happy with our lengths, but we could have been better with our lines, bowled more towards the stumps. We chatted about it and did so in the second session, getting some good rewards,” said all-rounder Ben Stokes after the day’s play.

In both the first and second Tests, England’s bowling has been reactive. There they learnt the pitch had nothing and by Cook’s own admission rectified their field placements – putting a third man for instance – after an hour had passed. Here they needed longer to bowl on target, after the lunch break.

Input from coaching staff is there yes, but senior bowlers like Anderson and Broad failed to rectify their bowling, especially on a surface like this. It must be hard to swallow for their fans that even the captain didn’t find it necessary to intervene until lunch break.

Second, in the post-tea session, they allowed India to escape from 145/7 to 290/9 with Ajinkya Rahane and Bhuvneshwar Kumar adding 90 runs. “It was frustrating to watch Kumar get runs again. We were unlucky, we got nicks but they went in gaps and then we tried the short-stuff, something Jimmy and Cook decided upon,” added Stokes.

Frustration can get the better of any bowling attack especially when you are facing the opponent’s best batsman in the series so far – Kumar in this case. But it is what happened after both he and Rahane had been dismissed that summed up England’s poor effort.

Bowling to Mohammad Shami the field was spread out with as many as six on the ropes. When Ishant Sharma batted, they came in. Stokes explained that the ‘idea was to attack Sharma since Shami looked more comfortable at the crease’. Yes, Shami has just scored a maiden Test fifty in the last match. But England had the second new ball in hand hardly seven overs old when the last pair came together. And they survived till stumps. A similar approach on day two will be suicidal.

The question to ask here is this: who is to blame for this pitiful show on a most-helpful wicket? How could England let India get to near-300 when they could have bowled them out for half that score? The answer lies in the summation of their scientific approach to team management and Cook’s ‘funky captaincy’.

On either side of the tea-break Moeen Ali bowled 14 overs of spin. Before tea-time, his spell was understandable. You want to give your medium pacers some breathing space. There has been much talk about managing the number of overs England’s medium pacers bowl because this is a hectic series.

But when Jadeja was out LBW in the 51st over, only four more overs were bowled until tea. Surely a fast bowler could have come in? After a 20-minute break, Ali was again pressed into service. Again, why weren’t quicker bowlers applied from both ends? Any team would want its strike bowlers to last an entire series but not at the cost of gaining an advantage in the present. This is where Cook is at fault.

Field placements look better in hindsight, but a captain ought to seize the moment, atleast in his bowling changes if not anywhere else.

This lackadaisical approach from the English skipper was most apparent in his pre-match conference, wherein he was asked if the level 3 charge against Anderson was an intended slur on the English team. Cook had to think about the answer before speaking out that he didn’t really know.

The answer should have been a most-vehement no, because it is clear that India have moved forward against one individual’s alleged actions and not their entire cricket team or establishment.

A more mature captain would have been forthright with his views in this instance. A more assertive captain would have seized the day at Lord’s. Cook is neither apparently. Maybe, Shane Warne is right.

Updated Date: Jul 18, 2014 13:47 PM

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