A curious bunch of early birds watched intently as the India-England Test odds were being written on the white board at the betting kiosk in the Lord’s premises.
It was all silent till the elderly shopkeeper slowly scrolls C-O-O-K. That is when a couple in three-fourth pants and loosely-fitted shirts let out a chuckle. The elderly odds-writer wasn’t amused. He writes 6/1 against Cook under the ‘England’s top scorer’ sub head and looked back.
“Don’t laugh, you know what his Test average is?” The boys don’t look intimidated by the officious tone. “I know, it’s 8 or 9 in this series,” they say. Looking for early business, the elderly man offers a betting tip. “It can go only one way from there,” he says. The derisive boys don’t buy the theory. “Yes, that’s out of the team,” says one and everyone around laughs. The out-of-form England skipper was once again the butt of jokes.
About an hour later, that early morning bet-shop conversation was being repeated around the venue and elsewhere on this Island. The man who last scored a 100 more than a year back was out for 10. During lunch time, the commentators were almost apologetic when they announced the topic of their discussion. “And yes, it will be once again Alastair Cook that we will be discussing,” David Gower said with a mischievous grin from the Sky studio.
On the lines of the television talk, those in the yellow-orange MCC tie and off-white coats too were discussing Cook’s lack of footwork, his crisis of confidence and how he should step down to find his form. The search has been long and England seem to be losing patience.
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The murmurs about Cook’s slipping crown started towards the end of last season. Losing the Ashes 5-0 and finishing with an average of 24, the skipper would have expected the reaction. There was respite for him since he didn’t have to wear his Test whites for the next 6 months. That was the time Cook took his mind off cricket. He attended weddings and even tried his hand at playing the trumpet.
The break, though, didn’t see him return to form. The uncertainty about his batting returned as he took guard for England. A circumspect footwork saw him getting out played-on twice. On other occasions, he has been caught behind the stumps while driving or, like today, merely nibbling at the ball. The feet aren’t moving and the eyes aren’t on the top of the ball. This season, in six innings, he has been out to five bowlers, a clear indicator that he doesn’t have a bowler-specific problem. Cook’s problem is his own batting, his mind and his demons.
At the start of his innings on Friday, Cook was watchful. He was reading Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s prodigious swing very early. He would read the movement from the hand and do likewise. The fact that the frail-framed Indian pacer started with slowish pace allowed Cook to leave the balls that went away and offered a straight bat to the ones that came to the stumps. But suddenly out of the blue, Bhuvneshwar came up with a ball that was pacier. Like so often of late, Cook wasn’t sharp enough. The edge reached Dhoni and England started ‘Cooking’ again.