Under-pressure England captain Alastair Cook found an unlikely ally in his Indian counterpart Mahendra Singh Dhoni ahead of their five-Test series.
After back-to-back series defeats both away and home to Australia and Sri Lanka, coupled with miserable personal form, Cook is akin to a wounded warrior in the centre of the coliseum, with enraged and blood-thirsty gladiators charging towards him with the sole intention of taking his head.
Everyone who follows the English game and has access to online space—and that's just about everyone these days—is arguing why Cook should step down or be sacked.
Among the more renowned individuals advocating this change are some of Cook's former teammates, opponents and other respected names in the game.
Shane Warne, in a rather feisty Daily Telegraph column that was the subject of much debate, said that he had "witnessed the worst day of captaincy I have ever seen at international level in almost 25 years in the game" during the Headingley Test against Sri Lanka.
Kevin Pietersen wasn't so direct in his Telegraph column but got the message through: "Cook’s form will be affecting him. I have played with Cooky long enough to know that when that happens he becomes very quiet and introverted. He struggles to handle it."
Geoffrey Boycott wasn't so kind, expectedly, when he told BBC's Test Match Special that Cook "is in terrible form" and "it's a recipe for resignation."
Ian Chappell agreed in a column for ESPN Cricinfo that Cook's captaincy "has gone from bad in Australia to worse in England" and even argued that "he should never have been awarded the captaincy."
But not Dhoni.
In a press conference ahead of India's tour of England, the Indian skipper offered a comforting hand around the shoulder when he said, per ESPN Cricinfo:
A bad phase is something that everybody goes through. You just need to back players at the right point. When you're getting those big hundreds and double hundreds everybody will be on your side. The real test of character is when your fans or when the media and team-mates are supporting you when you're not doing well.
Dhoni's reaction to what was evidently a provocative question from journalists hoping for another bold headline is not surprising—quite simply because there's no one better in international cricket who understands what the England skipper is going through.
Cook and Dhoni may be on opposite sides on the field but find themselves on the same rough side of the coin going into this series, for various reasons.
Cook averages 25 in the last 12 months with a highest score of 72. His last Test century came last summer against New Zealand at home. Since then, apart from five fifties, he has been in freefall for 12 Test matches.
Dhoni's record as a batsman in the last year has run on parallel lines. The 33-year-old averages just under 28 in six games with a single half-century. Given that Dhoni bats in the lower middle-order and thus cannot be expected to score as many runs as an opening batsman, the Indians would have expected better from their skipper, especially away from home.
Dhoni's overseas form echoes India's, who are perennial poor travellers. In 23 Tests played away from home as skipper, Dhoni has scored just 1,174 runs at 32.61 and never hit a century. Dhoni also recently became the poorest-performing Indian captain away from home in history, with as many as 11 losses and just five wins.
Compare that to his record as captain at home, where he averages 51.75 in 30 matches and has hit five centuries. India, under Dhoni, have won 21 of those 30 games.
Since their 3-0 win in the 2013 Ashes, England have lost 0-5 to the Australians in the return leg, then suffered their first-ever series defeat at home to Sri Lanka. In 2011, England had whitewashed India to become the No. 1 Test team in the world.
Three years later, they lie in the fifth spot, behind India.
As for the Indians, the tigers at home that they are, they have been miserable travellers. India's last Test win away from home came in the summer of 2011 against the West Indies. Dhoni's men have since gone 14 away Tests without a victory, including as many as 10 losses.
Criticism for being too defensive
Both Cook and Dhoni have been slated for their conservative brand of captaincy, with many blaming their respective teams' fortunes on this trait.
The Guardian's Andy Bull wrote after England's defeat to the Sri Lankans at Headingley that Cook "is still a naive tactician, too slow to react to the situation in front of him, too reliant on strategies concocted in the dressing room, loth to impose his opinions..."
Warne wrote in his Telegraph column that "good captains try things and are proactive, not hopeful" and that with Cook as captain, "England will always be conservative and get confused about what to do when games are in the balance because he retreats so quickly."
India's Dhoni isn't to be left far behind when it comes to being branded negative. The first instance that comes to mind is the Roseau Test against the West Indies in 2011, when the No. 1-ranked India, leading 1-0 in a three-match series, decided to call it a game with 15 overs left to play and 86 runs to win with seven wickets in hand.
Dhoni said that he was content with a series win and did not want to risk losing:
Not disappointed about stopping the run-chase. We were risking a series win going after the target. We realised that it was not worth going for it after those wickets. We gave it a go but we are happy with the series win.
As it turned out, the solitary win in that series would be India's last one away from home for three years and counting.
In all of India's overseas trips that followed, Dhoni looked a helpless, clueless figure behind the sticks as his bowlers got pasted all over the park.
He was averse to making any instinctive and proactive changes to both the bowling and to the field, which lacked the attacking mindset that is associated with him in limited-overs cricket.
It was almost as if he was a different person when it came to Test matches, and not the one who holds the 50-over World Cup and the Champions Trophy.
Giving up captaincy
If cricketing pundits and journalists had it their way, Cook and Dhoni would have been relieved from the captaincy by now.
The BBC's Jonathan Agnew argued recently that "England need Cook the batsman more than they need Cook the captain." However, even if the thought has crossed the minds of both Cook and the England team management, both face a conundrum.
For Cook, he would know that giving up captaincy would take away the bubble of safety around his spot in the team. Another couple of poor games and he could be axed from the team itself.
As for England, they aren't really spoilt for choice in this matter. Vice-captain Ian Bell's name was doing the rounds as a possible replacement, but he is 32 after all. How long will he remain a player, leave alone captain?
As for James Anderson and Twenty20 skipper Stuart Broad, they cut the figure of being individualist players and raise doubts as to whether they would be able to handle Test captaincy and keep performing at the same time.
The question of the captaincy safety net applies to Dhoni as well, although India aren't really spoilt for choices when it comes to replacement wicketkeepers. Wriddhiman Saha does not exude the confidence required from a Test cricketer, nor does Dinesh Karthik.
As for captain, however, India do have a choice. The 25-year-old swashbuckling batsman Virat Kohli, India's new No. 4, has long been the captain-in-waiting, and it is only a matter of time before he does get the added responsibility.
Thus, it all comes down to the upcoming five-match series. You could say that it is the last-chance saloon for both Cook and Dhoni, not only to improve their individual form but also better their team's record.
A loss for either man almost certainly is curtains for their captaincy, if not their place in the team.
That being said, certain sections of the Indian media have argued that no one really has the power to drop Dhoni, what with him being backed by the all-powerful newly appointed ICC chairman N Srinivasan.
Cook, unfortunately, does not have any such privilege.
Nevertheless, it promises to be an exciting series ahead. Dhoni and his young squad would be keen to erase the horrifying ghosts of their last tour three years ago, while Cook's revamped England are still searching for their swagger.
Dhoni might have supported his counterpart with his words, for obvious reasons, but expect no such favours come July 9.
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