Alastair Cook knows a bit about being under pressure in Test cricket. He has come through it to the tune of over 12,000 runs but is aware that some team-mates will be playing for their futures in the two Tests against New Zealand which start next week.
As recently as two matches ago, Cook had to dig deep into his resolve to overcome “dark times” in Australia, coming through with a double century in Melbourne that, while maybe not career-saving, was certainly career-reaffirming. This series in New Zealand is much lower-key, but the focus will be on two of Cook’s fellow batsmen.
Mark Stoneman and James Vince have been given a show of faith after mediocre Ashes, benefitting from this series being seen as part of the same touring block rather than the chance of a fresh start. A new selection team is unlikely to be so forgiving come the summer if they don’t make runs here.
“The selectors have picked pretty much the same squad of players,” Cook said. “It’s given the guys an opportunity who have experienced the Ashes and did okay – it may sound funny, but if you marked a series that we lost 4-0, a lot of people did okay – the chance to make the jump to become fully fledged international players or someone else gets another opportunity. The next two weeks, like every series you play, could define people’s futures.”
Cook will empathise with the feeling. There was 2010 and a barren run of form which put his place on the line, then 2014 when he was on the brink of quitting the captaincy before a dogged 95 against India at the Ageas Bowl. And less than three months ago he spoke of the significance of his Melbourne double century, saying he had been “embarrassed” by his earlier form on the tour and felt he was in “last-chance saloon”. Two months to reflect on it hasn’t dulled the memories.
“To be able to bat like that, you’ve got to be doing the right stuff mentally and still be on it,” he said. “There were some dark moments on that tour, but to keep going like that and then deliver shows you have something.”
Stoneman, who at the start of the week in Hamilton spoke of what he has to learn from Cook, will walk out alongside him to open the batting in this series regardless of the make-up of the side because there is no other opening option. He settled himself with a positive 48 in the red-ball warm-up in Hamilton after two failures against the pink ball he will face from Thursday.
The situation is not quite so clear-cut for Vince at No. 3 and could yet depend on how many overs the management feel Ben Stokes can get through. He did not bowl in the middle in Hamilton and will be put through his paces in Auckland on Monday. If he can’t act as a frontline fifth bowler, and it is sounding unlikely at the moment, he would still play as a batsman but probably at No. 5, and to allow an extra bowler that would mean dropping a batsman. That would be Vince.
“That’s the quandary,” Cook said of the balance of the attack, of course no longer the man who has to be part of the decision-making process. “Personally I think we need five bowlers with the make-up of our bowling attack.”
It could be, therefore, that the side in Auckland, although only subtly different in personnel, will have quite a different feel to the one in Sydney in early January. Alongside the potential of Stokes being a batsman at No. 5 is Stuart Broad not taking the new ball alongside James Anderson. There is a sense that Joe Root wants to start making this his England team, rather than the team of the man he inherited off.
“When he took over, he had South Africa and West Indies in the summer but was probably not going to shake it up too much and make big decisions,” Cook said. “But I do think in his mind after the Ashes he was thinking, ‘How do I re-build the side?’ I still wouldn’t be surprised if Stuart did take the new ball, I don’t know that, but I think there is a really good opportunity to see other people because with 900 wickets between them, that you know what you’re going to get.”
Root will hope the same can be said of Cook.