TUESDAY POLL: Cook’s captaincy put under threat by abject show

England captain Alastair Cook.
England captain Alastair Cook.
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FOR much of the day, Alastair Cook looked like a man directing a disaster movie.

He stood at slip, gesturing impatiently, while the special effects of Sri Lankan boundaries exploded across the Headingley turf.

Cook desperately wanted to cry “cut” but everything he said, everything he did, stubbornly refused to work.

The cinema-goers sat restless in their seats, wondering for how long he can stay as captain.

Only Cook will know at this stage, but there is no doubt the knives are starting to be sharpened.

As England stared into the abyss of their first home Test series defeat to Sri Lanka, closing day four on 57-5 in pursuit of 350, his future is coming under intense scrutiny.

England have never scored more to win a Test – their largest successful chase was 332-7 against Australia at Melbourne in 1928-29, when Yorkshire’s Herbert Sutcliffe led the way with 132 – and only an astonishing victory will silence the critics.

With that victory seemingly more distant than Cook’s last Test century, which came against New Zealand here more than a year go, there is no doubt he faces the greatest challenge of – and threat to – his captaincy career.

Ian Bell, who would be among the leading candidates to replace him, said he fully expected Cook to continue.

“Absolutely,” said Bell, adding he had “no doubt” that Cook still possessed the desire to do so.

However, he admitted that, “as a group, we know we’ve got to help him, get right behind him and start performing”.

Less convincingly, Bell argued that “Cooky could not have done anything different” yesterday, a statement with which few in the 4,000 crowd would concur. The contrast between Cook’s day, in fact, and that of Angelo Mathews, his Sri Lanka counterpart, was impossibly wide.

After his career-best 4-44 restricted the hosts to a first innings lead of 108, Mathews followed up with a career-best 160 as Sri Lanka lifted their second innings to the improbable heights of 457.

He did so primarily off his own back, with some thumping drives and thudding pulls, but with more than a little help from Cook, who allowed him easy runs with deep-set fields.

Cook preferred to attack Rangana Herath, with whom Mathews added 149 for the eighth-wicket, but the tactic backfired and there was no Plan B – just a firm refusal to shake things up.

Sri Lanka had started the day on 214-4, with Mathews and Mahela Jayawardene in situ.

Seven overs remained until the second new ball, and the tourists hit 40 in that time as Cook applied little pressure.

England’s bowlers were typically too short, and only Liam Plunkett looked particularly threatening.

The catching, too, has been poor in this match, and another one went down when Bell spilled Jayawardene on 79 in the gully off Stuart Broad in the fourth over after the new ball was taken.

Jayawardene had not added to his score, however, when he was fifth out at 268, caught behind after chasing a wide one from Anderson.

A mini wobble followed when Plunkett took two in two balls – both of the wickets made in Yorkshire.

Dinesh Chandimal picked out Gary Ballance at deep square-leg, Dhammika Prasad following when he uppercut to Joe Root at third man.

The afternoon brought almost complete misery for England’s supporters.

Mathews and Herath took advantage of flimsy bowling and unfathomable fields, steering their side into a powerful position.

Matters might have been different had Mathews, on 87, been caught off his own bowling by Plunkett, who dropped a hard-hit return.

It would have given him his fifth wicket of the innings and seen him become only the second Yorkshire player after Fred Trueman to take 10 wickets or more in a Test at Leeds.

As it was, Plunkett was forced to settle for 4-112 in the innings and 9-176 in the game.

On a lifeless surface, Cook only turned to his spinner, Moeen Ali, midway through the afternoon session.

His reluctance to use him was baffling – Ali had taken two wickets earlier in the innings – and the off-spinner duly caused further problems.

It took a run-out to break the eighth-wicket stand, though, Herath falling from the last ball before tea.

Mathews – seeking the single that would have taken him to 150 – set off and changed his mind, Root doing the rest with a throw from mid-on.

Anderson had Eranga caught behind only for umpire Billy Bowden to inexplicably miss the edge, and then rounded off the innings when he had Mathews caught at mid-wicket and yorked Nuwan Pradeep.

Figures of 3-91 flattered Anderson, who looked some way short of his sparkling best.

When England replied, Cook was bowled off an inside-edge while trying to pull; Ballance went lbw first ball; Sam Robson drove loosely and was held at second slip; Bell was bowled by a beauty through the gate, and Plunkett spooned curiously to cover.

Four of the wickets went to Pradeep, who would have had six had Bowden not seen two more judgements overturned on review.

Tickets for today cost £5 adults and are free for juniors (U-16) accompanied by an adult.