Cook dodges the axe by retiring ahead of the fifth Test, writes Simon Lewis.
How often have you heard someone say that a certain team is the best XI on paper … only for a smart ass in the corner to shout out that ‘it’s a pity the match is being played on grass!’
No one can know how a player will perform in a match, so you have to cut selectors a little bit of slack when things go wrong. They are simply the brutes who load the balls into the cannon. It’s up to the captain and his charges to aim those balls and fire at will.
The series between India and England played host to a glorious display of dubious selection decisions … as well as some truly inspired picks. Look them up: Sam Curran, Ollie Pope, Adil Rashid, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Cheteshwar Pujara, both Indian openers. There are good and bad selections among that lot, with yo-yo man Curran the shining light of the selectors’ plight.
But here’s an interesting bullet the England selectors managed to dodge. It’s called Alastair Cook.
Not enough words of praise can go Cook’s way after a multiple record-breaking Test career … but the truth is that Cook has been skating on thin ice for some time. In the last two years, he has managed just three Test centuries, albeit two were monster double tons (243 and 244 not out). His last 50 Test innings have seen him scrape together just 1,655 runs (ave 33.77), way below his career Test average that stands at 44.88, which is really good for an opener.
If India had won the fourth Test and squared the series, Cook and Keaton Jennings’ lack of runs would have put them both very much in the spotlight, especially when you lump in the catches they have grassed during the series.
What to do about your failing openers in a must-win fifth Test?
In such a situation, it wouldn’t have been a bad decision for the selectors to keep the faith in Cook because they know what he’s capable of producing. On the other hand, he was stuck in a bad run of form, he’s ageing, his tank was visibly running low … and he has to face the new ball EVERY innings with ever ageing eyesight. Is Cook the horse you would want to bet your house on? Perhaps the fact that Jennings would be playing for his future might make him a better wager for the selectors to put their money on?
It would have been a real head-scratcher to choose between these two.
The irony is that, with Cook announcing that he would be retiring after the fifth Test, he was effectively selecting himself for the fifth Test! It took the decision out of the selectors’ hands, as only a steel-hearted brute (perhaps old school Yorkshire?) might declare that ‘Cook can slip off into the horizon on his own steam … let’s give a new batsman the chance’.
With your pragmatic selector’s hat on, dropping Cook would be hard to fault as England Cricket would benefit far more in the long run from giving a chance to a new man in a stress-free match rather than gifting Cook a glorious ‘farewell tour’.
Yet it’s not so simple, as Cook still looks like a class batsman, and the selectors will hope to squeeze some last runs out of his willow for a fond farewell. He has been hitting the ball well (when not edging it) and the Indian bowlers would have had fingers crossed every time he walked to the wicket. They all know what he can do.
That highlights the challenge for selectors when it comes to choosing a team: they have to base their decisions on cold, hard statistics but, ultimately, they must go with their belief and their gut instinct. When a selection goes bad, however, they are left high and dry with no excuses and all the blame to shoulder. Tough gig.
If we lived in a cruel world, Cook would possibly have been dropped from either the fourth or fifth Tests. Thankfully, the fifth Test now offers the potential for a glorious cricketing contest between a top Indian bowling attack and one of the great Test batsmen of the modern era.
It’s the kind of mouth-watering matchup that will have many fans checking with HR to see how much leave they have on the books. With nothing to lose, there’s every chance Alastair Cook might produce something truly special as a fond farewell to Test cricket. And that would definitely be an innings not to be missed.
Footnote: The early series win for England has also given South African-born Keaton Jennings some breathing space. A batsman of great talent who goes about his work with superb craft, the fifth Test could give Jennings the chance to cement his own place for a long and prosperous Test career with England. Another great reason for putting in that leave slip!
Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images