Tuesday 17 October 2017

Cook's captaincy wilting as Australia turn up heat

Brad Haddin of Australia takes a catch to dismiss England’s Joe Root
Brad Haddin of Australia takes a catch to dismiss England’s Joe Root

Derek Pringle in Perth

Alastair Cook has not excelled with the bat as England captain against Australia, a decline that appeared to reach its nadir when he made a first-ball duck on the fourth day as his team, 503 runs in arrears, attempted to stave off a third successive defeat -- one that would hand the Ashes back to Australia.

Cook's template for captaincy is to lead from the front, something he is well-placed to do as an opener. Yet, he has seen his form collapse in the back-to back Ashes along with his average, which is a jaundiced 26.93 compared to a career one of about 47.

Australia have targeted him well before, working out how to get him out by pitching the ball full and running it across him. Usually they are seeking the outside edge of his bat but yesterday Ryan Harris did it to hit the top of off-stump with the first ball of England's second innings.

SCRAMBLED

It was a beauty, leaving the batsman off the seam, and a nasty ball to receive first up, but Cook's feet were frozen on the crease and his bat looked to waver in its downswing. If he had edged the ball fair enough, but he should not have been bowled by it.

Ian Chappell's adage that a scrambled mind equals scrambled footwork probably held true for England's captain, whose mind must be whirring away seeking answers for his team's rapid decline.

Some will argue that Cook is too important a cog to have his batting compromised by captaincy, but there are precious few realistic alternatives.

As previous captains such as Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain have revealed, it is an all-consuming job, invading every thought process you have, night and day, rain or shine.

Cook is tough but, as he has shown in the recent exchanges with Australia, he is fallible, too. He will not want to give up the captaincy and nor will there be pressure for him to do so, for realistic candidates are not in abundance (Matt Prior is vice-captain and enduring an even more harrowing tour than Cook).

One option, one taken by Allan Border and Viv Richards, is to drop down the order, but Cook is less versatile and will probably not want to do it.

Anyway, Cook likes challenges and, providing others do not take the leadership from him, a setback like this will just make him more determined.

Perceptions shift quickly when you are the losing captain in Ashes series. Now that Cook is losing, he is under the microscope, with onlookers lambasting his on-field decisions.

It has not gone well here at the Waca either, with many feeling that the fourth day of the match was England's worst Test day in living memory, having previously proclaimed the third to have set that benchmark.

Matters are always going to look bad when the opposition are on top and pounding you, as Shane Watson and George Bailey did in the morning session of day four, Watson scoring a rapid 103, only his second Test century in 56 innings.

Starting off on his overnight 28, Watson hit 14 runs off the opening over bowled by Graeme Swann to signal Australia's intentions to push on quickly towards their declaration. Soon after he reached his 50, Watson struck Swann for 22 in an over, a total later beaten by Bailey, whose 28 off James Anderson included three sixes.

It equalled the record for the number of runs in a Test over, set by Brian Lara against South Africa's Robin Peterson in 2003 at the Wanderers.

Clarke declared after that, 503 runs ahead, leaving his team five and a half sessions to win back the Ashes here.

Cook's early dismissal made it look a formality, and Michael Carberry, Joe Root and Kevin Pietersen followed over the next 40 overs.

Pietersen's dismissal was especially frustrating. Having got in, he promptly gave it away with an attempted repeat of a six he had struck off Nathan Lyon over long-on. With the fielder back and the wind up, it was always likely to end badly, and it did.

Ian Bell and Ben Stokes restored some pride, adding 99 until Bell was given out caught behind, on review thanks to 'Snicko', after trying to upper-cut Peter Siddle over the slips.

Stokes, though, continued to boost his reputation as a talented all-rounder with his maiden Test half-century. He even dominated Australia's attack, taking 12 fours off them as England closed on 251-5. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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