AFTER the thrilling climax to the Headingley Test, which Sri Lanka won off the penultimate ball, England captain Alastair Cook walked into ‘The Kevin Pietersen Room’.
It is not really ‘The Kevin Pietersen Room’ but ‘The Boundary Cafe’ on the second floor of the Carnegie Pavilion, but it is known as such to members of the Fourth Estate as it was there that Pietersen delivered his extraordinary “it’s tough being me” speech in 2012.
At one end of that cafe – not open to the public – is where the press conferences are held for England’s games, and it must certainly have been tough being Alastair Cook that night as he took his seat in front of the cameras and faced the music following England’s 100-run defeat.
The only pressing question was whether Cook was considering his position after England had lost their first home Test series to Sri Lanka, a series they had been odds-on to win.
Cook looked ready for the inevitable question – like a man who had set himself in the crease for a bouncer – and duly dispatched the enquiry over square-leg for six as he delivered an impassioned defence of his credentials.
“I believe I am the right man… I’ve never quit anything in my life… I want to continue…” was the gist of his jib.
In those few minutes, as he spoke from the heart, I saw Cook in a strangely different light.
To be honest, I have never been much of a fan of Cook the captain – not so Cook the batsman – and have previously detected an almost dismissive attitude towards the media not dissimilar to that displayed by some of his colleagues.
But I was impressed with his demeanour as he fronted up to the inquisitors, the way he carried himself, the way he bravely faced the music and, above all, by the steely determination in his face and voice.
This was Cook in the raw, Cook in the round, Cook with effectively nowhere to go but to sit there and tell it as it is, a man if not exactly clinging to his position for dear life then at least with plenty to do to persuade people – not just the media – that he is indeed the right man to take England forward.
For the first time, I saw someone who could become a real leader by emerging strongly from these dark days, someone who suggested he is willing to learn, someone who could realistically hold the fort until Joe Root is ready to take over, as he surely must.
I actually felt rather sorry for Cook – not that sentiment should really come into it – and found myself hoping that things get better for him.
I still have significant doubts about him tactically, as do so many, but curiously I came away from that press conference feeling more hopeful about England’s prospects than I had before I had gone into it.
Cook talked the talk in ‘The Kevin Pietersen Room’ but what he must do now – beginning with the five-match Test series against India that starts on Wednesday week – is walk the walk.
It is no good making the same tactical errors he made at Headingley, too many to list here, much less continue a run of form that has seen him go more than a year without a Test century, a run at variance with his outstanding talent. Cook must be proactive in leadership and productive in run-making or he could find himself replaced not only as captain before the India series is over but also out of the side.
As he conceded: “Nobody has got a divine right to captain the team or even be in the team.”
Cook must do better after the Sri Lanka setback, as must his fellow seniors.
James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Matt Prior … great names of English cricket’s recent past but now they need to prove they can still be an important part of the future and give Cook the support he sorely needs. Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann have all departed the scene for different reasons in recent months, and that number could swell unless results improve.
None of the seniors can rest on former glories.
England are a team in transition, that much is clear, and several questions remain to be answered.
Is Moeen Ali the best spinner?
Is the batting order right, with Gary Ballance at No 3, Ian Bell at No 4 and Root at No 5?
Is Sam Robson the future as an opening batsman?
Strangely, the Sri Lanka series has in many ways clouded the picture rather than clarified it.
Moeen Ali’s magnificent hundred on the last day at Headingley should not mask that Cook had little or no faith in him with the ball.
Ballance made a maiden Test century at Lord’s and Root a maiden Test double hundred in the same match, but at Yorkshire you would more likely find them batting the other way round.
Robson – as well as he played for his maiden century at Headingley – is arguably not as good as another Yorkshireman, Adam Lyth, and needs to back up his performance in the face of stiff competition.
The next few weeks will tell us much about Team England – and even more about their embattled leader.