Alastair Cook needs runs. The England captain has the audible backing of his team, board and large sections of the press, but the pressure from other quarters is such that his place in the team is under question.
The Essex lefthander is evidently keen to end his poor run of form and is under no illusions that his output at the head of a team that has forgotten how to win needs to improve. Much of the pressure he is under therefore comes from within, but is his faith that a corner can be turned justified?
Cook’s malaise is sizeable. When he edged Shaminda Eranga behind in the second innings of the opening Test of the summer at Lord’s, his average over a 12-month period stood at 25.8, 20.4 runs below his career average of 46.2.
Such a slump unsurprisingly resulted in widespread calls for Cook’s axing – or at least a change in captaincy to facilitate an improvement in batting form – but there is evidence that established players pay back faith shown in them in these circumstances.
Cook has recorded the 89th instance of a player with a minimum of 50 Test innings averaging at least 20 runs fewer than a career average over a 12-month period. Jettisoning such established players is a big decision for selectors and the performance in the next year of these players suggests backing them is recommended.
Overall these players average 46.4 in the 12 months after their average slumped in the manner Cook’s has done recently.
However, a look at the last 10 players to become part of this club shows bouncing back is not easy. Whilst most improved on their average during a year of poor returns, only Michael Clarke and Mohammad Hafeez could match the career average that helped them become established players.
Clearly age plays a role here. Mohammad Yousuf and Thilan Samaraweera saw a year-long slump signal the end of their careers, whilst legends Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis were entering the twilight of theirs.
Examining those who, like Cook, are under 30 reveals a different story. These established players are young enough to drop with a view to them returning once a period out of the Test firing line has refreshed them.
Perhaps the case of Ian Bell is instructive here. He was dropped in the Caribbean in the early days of the Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower era and returned when the 2009 Ashes were on the line a few months later.
Bell’s twin failure in his second Test back saw his 12-month average fall 22.5 runs below his career figure of 39.8, but his crucial 72 at The Oval kick-started a run of form that saw him average 61.2 over the next year.
Arguments for the retention of Cook exist in the form of Ponting, who bounced back from his Indian travails in 2001in style, and Rahul Dravid, who averaged 137.3 in the year after he averaged 26.6 at the turn of the century.
Cook is a fine player but not in the class of those two and an average of 46.4 over the next year, the average return of a player who is in the sort of rut Cook is experiencing, would more than suit the England captain.
He was under heavy pressure at the end of the 2010 summer, when he hit a century at The Oval against Pakistan to fight off critics who questioned his place ahead of that winter’s Ashes. His slump then was shorter and more extreme – he had gone just eight innings without a ton but had a top score of 29 – and also lacked the added complication of captaincy.
A lot has been invested in Cook and he has already paid plenty back. The selectors will be keen to give him every chance to rediscover that best form as the chosen head of a new era, but all parties know his decreasing batting average needs to quickly show an upturn.