Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A Tale of Two Captains

Tuesday, 24 June 2014
And so on the fourth day of the second test, English cricket returned to normal. After coming so close to victory in the first test and then looking ahead after the first two innings (though not taking full advantage of their superior position – the lower order crumbled too swiftly to amass a huge lead they had the potential to do), day four saw England fall apart, showing their troubled winter is far from behind them.

The second test has been a tale of two captains – Angelo Mathews' has continued to lead Sri Lanka from the front, starring with bat and ball; whilst Alastair Cook's run of poor form looks to go on and on, his captaincy once again looking uninspired. Mathews played one of the great captains' innings, reaching 160 and building a considerable lead for his team, surely preventing defeat and turning the match on its head - turning a 108 run first innings deficit into a lead of 349. It's certainly been an impressive series for Mathews – first getting his name on the famous honours board at Lord's and his 18 from 90 in the second innings going a long way to saving the test; whilst at Headingley he has made his contributions with both bat and ball – his bowling perfectly suiting the surface and taking four first innings wickets. Mathews has certainly been one of those players for whom captaincy has brought the best out of, at least so far in his career, averaging 78.83 with the bat as captain compared to 39.71 when not leading his side. His wicket has become one of the most prized of the opposition, up there with Sangakkara and Jayawardene.

For Alastair Cook, however, the misery has continued. Cook's form with the bat has completely fallen away after leading from the front when he first took over. From averaging 80.28 in his first permanent series as captain (the series win in India), in his most recent three series he has averaged under thirty, the captaincy taking its toll. And the results on the pitch have not been able to shield him. Not all the criticism he has received for his captaincy has been deserved, but it must be said that a brilliant tactician he is not. A problem with English cricket under the central contract system, although an overwhelmingly positive development, is that once a player becomes a fixture in the team they have little chance to gain experience captaining a side. This is particularly true for those who come into the team at a very young age, touted with the 'future England captain' tag from the start of their international career – players such as Cook and now also said of Joe Root. What experience can be gained is often through the Lions side – but not the intensive, long term involvement that can be gained with a county. But counties need their captains to be around and playing regularly for them – creating a vicious circle that just makes it difficult for obvious captains to emerge within the England set-up. Previous captains such as Strauss did have experience, but came into the team at a slightly older age and so at least had some chance to captain their county sides first. I don't believe that Cook is suited to the job, but I struggle to see anyone really putting himself out there, secure enough of his place in the side, to replace him. Bell has had brief experiences captaining Warwickshire but doesn't seem to be considered internationally, and now in his thirties doesn't have time on his side; Prior was vice-captain but has since been dropped and must now re-establish himself in the side; Broad has captained the Twenty20 side but is unlikely to take the role for tests; Morgan also captaining in Twenty20 but remaining outside the test team. It's difficult to see an obvious solution.

Cook's captaincy has certainly been lacking. I don't think he did badly in the first test - the timing of his declaration has been criticised but to me it suited the match situation. But it has shown before and was shown again – when the team is under the cosh they often seem to have no answer, no 'plan B', an alternative strategy for when the first one fails. He is too often too defensive and hesitant. On day four he persisted with his pace quartet, not turning (no pun intended) to the spin option of Moeen Ali until many overs were bowled with the 'new' ball. He may not be Graeme Swann, but he does at least offer a change of pace, and an option you would think to go to when not much seems to be happening. The bowlers should also take some blame; those with the experience of Anderson and Broad should be able to make more of a contribution in such matters. The team as a whole fell flat. And then the batting fell apart under pressure. Reckless shots – nightwatchman Plunkett's the first to come to mind, a shot completely unsuited to the match situation – and good balls seeing England's top order crumble to 57/5. With just Root, Ali, and Prior the recognised batsmen left for England – Broad and Jordan hard to predict – England face an Everest to save the match. The questions will continue to come.

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