In cricket, they say, the captain is the boss. The consequences of the moves and changes made by a captain in a game of cricket are far bigger than in any other sport. A cricket captain has more on his plate than his counterparts from other sports.
Most skippers make elaborate plans with the coaching staff and follow them to the tee in a robotic and almost mundane manner on the field. Very rarely they are seen making surprise bowling changes or setting an innovative field. Experimentation isn’t their cup of tea.
Then there are captains who rely on their instincts and regularly manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat. With seemingly ungainly moves, they make things happen for their team which often prove to be the turning points of the match. It’s not that there isn’t any pre-match planning done, but in the face of adversity they are quick to dump their plan A and move to a plan B.
Alastair Cook certainly belongs to the former group of skippers. James Anderson and Stuart Broad with the new ball, Tim Bresnan as the first change looking for reverse swing, Graeme Swann against the left handers and when in doubt go back to Anderson. He has it all chalked out. More often than not, it also works for him due to the quality and variety of the attack, and on better days England appear like a well oiled machine.
But the thing with machines is that even if a single gear or a bearing goes out of sync, the whole assembly comes to a grinding halt. On the first two days of the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford, the conditions – a clear sky and a flat pitch – conspired against the home side attack and once the Australians showed they know how to bat, Cook, in the absence of a back up plan, had no other option than to wait for the batsmen to make a mistake.
With no swing – conventional or reverse – on offer, Anderson, for once in the series, looked mortal. Tirelessly, he kept hitting the good length to get the ball to do something but the lack of response from the wicket rendered him impotent, and he registered his worst figure in an innings – 0/116 in 33 overs.
Broad and Bresnan are honest cricketers, and though they toiled hard, they had just one wicket each in over five sessions to show for their efforts.
Swann, who got some purchase from the pitch, finished with a five-for but two of his scalps were due to mindless slogs by the batsmen and one due to a mindless decision by the third umpire. As the English bowlers struggled to keep the Aussies from piling on the runs, the mood in the hosts’ camp went from being frustrated, to being desperate, to a feeling of helplessness.
Of course, when the conditions are unfavorable and a batsman as good as Michael Clarke is on song, there is very little one can do. But what goes against Cook is his inadequate effort to force things to happen. In the absence of sideways movement he could have asked the seamers to try the short stuff. Broad had twice hit Clarke on the helmet in the Lord’s Test and had made the Australian skipper seem unsettled then.
The under utilization of the part timers, Joe Root and Jonathan Trott, who bowled just five of the 146 overs combined, also betrayed a lack of imagination. On a pitch where Swann asked a few questions, the part time spinning options of Root and Pietersen could have been exploited a bit more.
Even in the first Test at Trent Bridge when Ashton Agar and Phillip Hughes combined for a record tenth wicket partnership, Cook looked clueless about how to bring an end to the onslaught. Against Agar, who had played just 10 first class games prior to his debut, there wasn’t much data available to work on, and the English captain and his bowlers were caught napping when faced with the unknown.
On the other hand, Cook’s opposite number, Clarke, a more proactive captain, showed how to go about things in such conditions. Having posted a big first innings total, the Australian skipper rotated his bowlers regularly and kept the English batsmen guessing his next move.
After just three overs, each by his new ball bowlers, he realised the futility of depending on swing or seam movement and brought Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon to the attack. Though the duo didn’t provide him a breakthrough, Watson stuck to a tight line and Lyon extracted big turn from the pitch to unsettle the openers.
Clarke raised a few eyebrows by not introducing Peter Siddle, his most successful bowler in the series, into the attack until the 22nd over of the innings, but his decision to hold him back was vindicated as the Victorian paceman snared two wickets in a late burst in the day.
Even as England find themselves under the pump for the first time in the series, Swann was optimistic after the day’s play and said they believe they can still pull off a win. There were also whispers about the 2006 Adelaide Test in which England lost after posting 551/6 declared in the first innings.
But to pull off such a heist, England will have to bat long and do something out of the ordinary to skittle out Australia in the second innings.
It will be a race against the time if the match goes into such a situation and Cook will have to be more flexible with his bowling plans and more assertive with his captaincy. On a surface that is showing no sign of deterioration, the routine won’t be good enough.