Ashes 2017/18: Tottering Alastair Cook compounds England’s batting woes
Mitchell Starc pitched one full on the cusp of off-stump. Alastair Cook was enticed to poke at it and the ball ended up in the hands of Peter Handscomb at first slip. Cook was dismissed for just two - the fifth consecutive time that he fell for under twenty-five in a Test innings and the seventh in the last nine.
Only 2.4 overs into the 2017-18 Ashes, England found their most experienced and one of their four most potent weapons on the tour already back in the pavilion. His chance to bat in the first innings was over inside a mere fifteen minutes.
Expectations were high from the former captain to lead the top order even before the moment England announced a fairly inexperienced squad to defend the urn in Australia. However, ever since Cook first batted on the tour – in a practice match against a Western Australia XI – his lack of runs at the top has further added fuel to an already naïve batting line-up. Caught behind for a two-ball duck off Nathan Coulter-Nile at Perth on his first innings on the tour, the veteran has thus far endured a scratchy trip of the Australian summer.
In the warm-up match that followed, he was again caught by the wicket-keeper for 15 off a fine delivery which seemed to move away from the left-hander for a second before taking the edge. In the second innings, Cook gave away a decent start by again falling caught behind for 32.
Three successive dismissals of getting caught behind cheaply demonstrated even before the commencement of the series that Cook was a repeated victim of deliveries landing full and close to the lurking edge of his bat.
Of great expectations
That meant he had only two more possible opportunities to enter the first Test at the Gabba with the confidence of having knocked down a local bowling attack in Australian climes, albeit a modest one. Finally, at Townsville, Cook and his latest opening partner Mark Stoneman stitched together 172 for the first wicket. The senior opener made 70 before falling – yet again – caught by the wicket-keeper. However, in this instance, the bowler was an off-spinner.
The team management would have loved to believe that Cook, on his fourth visit to Australia, would produce his best once Starc and company began to steam in even as the hostile Gabba crowd chanted their names. They would have hoped Cook would at least show a glimpse of the stubbornness he had displayed while on tour in the 2010/11 series. But his persistent run of low scores returned to haunt England when the 2017-18 series started on a horror note.
With the likes of Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan possessing the combined experience of merely 15 Tests among themselves, Cook was expected to hang sturdily at the crease and launch the visitors’ campaign with a sense of positivity which would rub onto the men who followed him in the batting order. But following an outside edge in the first innings, it was the top edge that sent him back in the second.
Smith plots Cook's downfall
The opposition captain Steven Smith, after playing perhaps the most obdurate Ashes innings in recent times, set up Cook brilliantly. Starc was positioned deep on the fine leg fence; the opportunity may have looked unlikely considering the Gabba’s long boundaries and that Cook was the last of those attempting a maximum in Test cricket.
But Josh Hazlewood pitched it short on middle and leg stump before Starc sprinted in and bent low to pouch a smart catch. The first Test was over for Cook, with just seven runs to show for in the second innings. A total of nine runs came from a usually dependent opener playing in his seventh Ashes series.
A dearth of runs was a sight for long. His last Test century, a fourth double ton of 243 against West Indies in a first day-night encounter for England at Edgbaston this August, came 17 innings after his previous one. Smith’s unruffled knock of 141* had already pushed Australia into a fistful of lead of 26. As the curtains fell on day three, Cook’s stay was more than essential irrespective of the courage displayed by Stoneman and Vince in piling up crucial half-centuries in the first innings.
Unfortunately, Vince too fell to Hazlewood two overs later with England still nine runs in arrears and Hazlewood breathing fire. Moments later, Starc tore the earpiece of Joe Root’s helmet. A nervous day concluded with England barely a handful ahead and their batsmen walking back with a massive relief of having safely negotiated any further threat which the rival bowlers brought.
The story could have been entirely different had Cook hung on to tackle Australia’s ferocious pace and their burning desire to blow as many batsmen away as possible before day four. What followed was an all too familiar England collapse in the second innings. Just an hour into the final day, the visitors lost the first Test by ten wickets.
Cook’s next opportunity to make a mark will be the maiden day-night Ashes Test in Adelaide. England will be buoyed by the fact that their inaugural day-night Test had brought a wealth of runs for Cook. They will be desperately hoping that their pillar replicates his 2010/11 form and stamps his authority on Australian soil.