It would have required a heart of stone not to have felt at least a pang of sympathy for beleaguered England cricket captain Alastair Cook as he trudged off the field having edged a horrendously mistimed pull shot onto his stumps on the fourth day of the second Test match against Sri Lanka at Headingley. Cook left the arena looking a defeated man - changed beyond all recognition from the assured batsman who, at the age of only 29, is fifth in the all-time list of English Test run scorers, and has scored more Test centuries than any other Englishman.
For all his undoubted brilliance as a batsman, the burden of the England captaincy has turned Cook into a shell of the player who was one of the most crucial cogs in the England team that reached the top of the ICC Test rankings in 2012. If that was not apparent after the debacle of a 5-0 Ashes defeat last winter, it certainly was at Headingley, where Cook and his England team looked totally bereft of inspiration. Much of the recent criticism of Cook has been fully justified - his unimaginative and defensive strategy in the second Test allowed Sri Lanka, led by a stunning counter-attacking innings from their captain, Angelo Mathews, to overturn a seemingly impregnable England position. One of the key differences between Cook and Mathews is that few people seriously expected the Sri Lankans, who had never previously won a Test series in England, to have a legitimate chance of success. Consequently, Mathews, who had nothing to lose, played and captained with verve, imagination, and aggression; whereas Cook seemed a wretched figure by comparison - cowed by the storm of criticism he has received and anxious about the consequences of yet another defeat.
Whatever the justification for the barrage of criticism to which Cook has been subjected, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy, and indeed a certain sense of disquiet, about the treatment he has received - including vitriolic attacks on Twitter. Leadership in modern international sport is a crushing burden. The scrutiny in this current era of ever expanding social media, where each misstep is ruthlessly analysed by media pundits, celebrity fans, and casual observers alike, has escalated the pressure on England's sporting leaders to almost impossible levels. But perhaps the weight of expectation on Cook's shoulders is greater than for any of England's other sporting captains. After an abject display in the World Cup, England's footballers, captained by Steven Gerrard, who himself had a dismal tournament, can at least return to their club sides. Lest we forget, England's football team has a far worse recent record than Cook's cricketers, who won the Ashes less than 12 months ago and secured a rare series victory in India in 2012. Yet, all will undoubtedly be swiftly forgotten when Gerrard and his teammates return to action in the Premier League in August.
Unfortunately for Alastair Cook, he has no such outlet - his sole function, as a centrally contracted employee of the England Cricket Board, is to captain England. There is no real opportunity for him to repair his fragile form and confidence in county cricket. With a five-Test series against India starting on 9 July, there will be no hiding place, and unless the performances of Cook and his team improve, the pressure will continue to escalate. It may be a cliché, but the harsh reality in international sport is that you are judged almost solely on the basis of your most recent performances. Under such tremendous scrutiny, the pressure on Cook to perform, both personally and as a leader - a role for which his insular personality seems ill-suited - may be too great. Perhaps, in the modern era, the job of England cricket captain really is impossible.