One of England’s worst days of home Test match cricket in recent memory at Headingley corrupted any lingering optimism surrounding England’s New Era, exposing the harsh truths of England’s New Reality.
Five hours of listless, leaderless, uninspired English bowling was followed by the limpest of responses with the bat to leave Sri Lanka on the brink of a historic series victory and England, at 57-5 in pursuit of 351, staring into the abyss of eight winless Test matches.
It took England five painstaking hours to get out Sri Lanka’s final six batsmen as the visitors piled on 243 runs and immeasurable misery on England, who wilted in the afternoon sun.
Admittedly, Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews played one of the great modern Test match innings, scoring his second consecutive Test century to go along with his four wickets in the first innings. His record partnership with Rangana Herath, worth 149, wrested the match from England’s grasp.
But for all Sri Lanka’s brilliance, England’s performance in the field and with the ball was woeful, and they have themselves as much, if not more, than Sri Lanka to blame for the position they now find themselves in.
Alastair Cook’s captaincy was yet again unimaginative and one-dimensional.
Despite taking three early wickets, as soon as England began to struggle to take a fourth, Cook failed to change a bad plan that was being poorly executed by his bowlers.
Happy to give Mathews the single to bring Herath on strike, England’s bowlers were unable to dislodge Herath, and the pair punished them. For far too long Mathews and Herath batted unchallenged and unperturbed as Cook allowed the match to drift along and away from his team.
There is little doubt that not one of the four pace bowlers performed anywhere near their best, although Liam Plunkett at least held his own, but Cook led with such insouciance that you felt even if the bowlers were bowling well, they wouldn’t have taken a wicket.
It wasn’t so much that Cook was making wrong decisions but more that he wasn’t making any decisions.
Bowlers’ spells were too long, fields were left unchanged and tactics untouched. Moeen Ali was yet again misused. Despite taking two crucial wickets on Day 3, he was seemingly not valued enough by his captain and only came on to bowl 90 minutes into the partnership between Matthews and Herath.
It is concerning that neither Anderson nor Broad, both experienced bowlers, took it upon themselves to assist Cook in his plight. They, like the rest of the team, seemed content to allow the game to drift from their control.
Meanwhile, Matt Prior kept badly for the second consecutive day, dropping another straightforward chance.
The soporific nature of England’s efforts in the field were only perpetuated by the energy of Sri Lanka’s riposte after tea. With the ball pitched well up the seamers found plenty of movement off the pitch, and Sri Lanka's energy levels in the field were in direct contrast to those of England, who appeared unmotivated and lacklustre.
Sri Lanka, fuelled perhaps by Paul Farbrace’s change of allegiance, by the Mankad and chucking furores and maybe even the Big Three’s takeover of the ICC, have played energised and inspired cricket.
They have played with meaning and with cause, with determination and passion, all things that are conspicuous by their absence in England’s game.
After the horror day in the field, Cook’s innings bore with it the feeling of momentous significance. Yet there was something awfully inevitable about his demise, which came in the most undignified way imaginable—dragging on a short ball—Cook’s day seemed somehow complete as he trudged off the field.
England's subsequent collapse to 57-for-5 is in many regards the headline story. It’s the most tangible acknowledgement of England’s impending defeat, the story that sees Cook walking back to the pavilion having failed again.
It’s the story that invokes a feeling of carnage and chaos, that succinctly sums up England’s predicament.
But the reality is that the greater concern lies in the five hours that preceded England’s collapse, the five hours that saw Sri Lanka plunder England’s listless and leaderless attack to set a total above and beyond what they should have been able to.
England shouldn’t be 57-for-5—but neither should they have been chasing 350.
Cook is now under intense pressure as captain. Not only has his batting totally stalled over the last 12 months, but he has in no way made up for such shortcomings with his captaincy. He has long hidden behind the veil of inexperience, but even that excuse is now wearing thin as his tenure approaches two years.
Cook is neither a tactician nor a leader of men, and his man-management skills are in little evidence.
The ECB are highly unlikely to sack Cook given the extensive lengths they’ve gone to preserve his captaincy (the removal of Kevin Pietersen and the reselection of Matt Prior are thought to be significantly motivated by that purpose).
However, given Cook’s raunchy pre-match response to Shane Warne’s criticism, it is not impossible to see Cook succumbing to the inevitable media pressure and resigning from the captaincy before the India Test series.
But that too remains unlikely with more time under new coach Peter Moores and a new squad legitimately afforded to him.
Regardless of whether Cook stays or goes, what this Test match and the awful fourth day have done is highlight the horrendous misjudgement of the ECB to place so much faith in the captaincy of Cook.
They have moved heaven and earth to get him into this position, and now England are five wickets away from being beaten in all formats against Sri Lanka.
Ultimately, it’s not really Cook’s fault that he’s struggling in the role; it’s the ECB’s. They appear to have appointed the wrong man.
It may be a new era, but it's producing the same results. Next time, with no Pietersen to pin the blame on, the buck stops with the ECB.