November 18, 2013

Alastair Cook begins

Let's face it, Alastair Cook bores: the opposition, the fans - except, I suspect, those who while watching him bat are possessed with the same cussedness he displays while batting - and perhaps even umpires. No, it is not about the forward defensive stroke which looks like a loveless jab; or that rare specimen of a southpaw's cover drive which might be best described as a soulless clout. Graeme Smith's style, if he has any, is ugly too, but 'Biff' brings to his bat a brutality that makes him an obvious vanguard as skipper and opening batsman. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has inadvertently led the battle on substance over (conventional) style to an extent that is scarcely credible. Yet, his monumental lack of style is unique, if the lack of anything can be unique. Cook though is boring, plain English boring, like another grey summer's day in downtown Manchester or Leeds. He is also less than a double-hundred shy of 8000 Test runs, has twenty-five centuries in the long form, and has the chance to  add significantly to that tally before Christmas when he turns twenty-nine.

Yours truly is no great fan of Cook's. Just as Gary Kirsten's 210 in 1998 at Old Trafford has gone down in Andy Zaltzman's cricket-viewing history as one of the most heart-lulling, mind-numbing and soul-crushing innings of the age, Cook's own 294 at Edgbaston in 2011 - when the opposition batsmen were barely sighting hundreds - has become my own pet bore-a-thon. Not only would I not pay to watch Cook bat, but I would probably escape from a free pass too with an appropriately worded excuse. What I will not escape from, however, is reading Cook's career trajectory, which is an indubitable lesson in will, especially for those who, by cursory glances, are dismissed for lacking flair.

'Chef' - a nickname that is arguably as prosaic as Cook's willow-wielding - has been around in international cricket for less than eight years, but his durability brings a veteran journeyman to mind. Cook's debut Test versus India at Nagpur in 2006 brought him 164 runs including a second innings hundred, which in the context of a still middling England team heralded a star, albeit one with little sparkle: after the match, a close friend actually told me that Cook's batting reminded him of - that West Indian Champion's Trophy legend and, ironically, England's nemesis  - Ian Bradshaw's. Unlike England's more stylishly stellar promises - you know the names - however, Cook has played, struggled, stayed and become an international batsman of fine pedigree (a term I use, only because I find the oft-abused great tiresome). And if the perception that a batsman peaks around thirty is true - as evidenced by Sangakkara's crescendos in the last two years - then bowlers around the world had better watch out for Cook 2.0. He may be a little more aggressive; or worse, his defence may become even more impregnable.  

Cook's individual achievements form only part of the Essex man's story, however. What is more revealing is that the rise in Cook's stature as a batsman has coincided with his team's ascendance from pushovers to solid competitors to being the (second) best in the business. Indeed, the current England team's winning habit owes much to a near-perfect combination of ECB's prioritisation of Test cricket, Andy Flower's clear vision as head coach and Andrew Strauss' understated but uncompromising leadership. Nor can one forget the significance of, arguably, the second most potent bowling attack in the world: all the same, while messieurs Swann and Anderson, ably assisted by Stuart Broad and others, have most often done their darndest to pick the twenty wickets needed to win Tests, Cook's prolific ball-blunting defiance has ensured that the bowling efforts actually become favourable scorelines.

Alastair Cook's importance to the England team has only become even more focused in the wake of Strauss' retirement. Even if one chooses to underplay Cook's role as a senior statesman in reintegrating Kevin Pietersen - a move which returned huge dividends in India last year - and questions, as Shane Warne has done, his wait-for-them-to-make-mistakes brand of captaincy, his role at the top of the order is more significant for England than ever;  a significance that has been contrastingly illustrated lately. 

In India last year, with England sighting a 1-0 deficit by the third afternoon in Ahmedabad, Cook ground out 176 in over nine hours - a tour de force of immaculate defence and optional attack that bears comparison both with the best defensive innings of the past and with the best innings played by a visiting batsman in the sub-continent. Cook would go on to make two more hundreds: playing Robin (122) to Pietersen's Batman (180) in the stunning series leveller in Mumbai; and an over-my-dead-body 190 at Kolkata that gave England an unassailable (and eventually series-winning) 2-1 lead. Creditable as Cook's hundreds in the two Indian metropolises were - they showcased Cook's versatility as a batsman and his ability to compartmentalise batting and captaincy -  it was his Ahmedabad marathon that set up the turnaround in the series, suggesting that  moral victories do sometimes offer a trailer for real ones.

If Cook's last Indian winter as a batsman was delicious (or dogged, if you do not prefer gastronomical cliches), his England summer this year, when Australia visited, was bland (or flimsy). The skipper aggregated a modest - by his standard, paltry - 277 runs at 27.70, with a highest score of 62 and just two other fifties. On as many as five occasions Cook scored less than thirty, and on each of those occasions England slumped - assisted by a woefully out-of-form Jonathan Trott - to three down for less than fifty. If not for the duet performed by a sublime Ian Bell and an Australian batting line-up heroically afraid of playing patient cricket - and the weather's concluding sad solo at Manchester - for much of the series, England might have lost at least one Test. In the event they lost none; the eventual 3-0 scoreline in England's favour did not thankfully paper over their batsman's flaws, however. Cook's own performances suggested - perhaps incorrectly, because they might merely have reflected a routine dip in form - to me that juggling the critical twin roles of an opener and a captain were finally becoming more difficult for him than he let on.

Cook is now back in Australia. He racked up a Bradman-esque 766 runs in just seven innings the last time he was there, proving that he had graduated from a minnow-beating monster to a first rate young batsman, besides giving the England team the small matter of their first away Ashes win in a generation - and Ponting's captaincy the worst farewell possible. That Cook is captain, too, this time will add to his opening burdens; although, if his form in the tour games are any indication, he is determined to show that his batting woes in the Ashes Episode I (shot in England) were just an aberration.

A few days ago, the friend with whom I co-author this blog asked me (rhetorically, I suspect) whether I see any of the world's currently leading batsmen threatening Sachin Tendulkar's records. While it is hard to be sure one way or another - few thought that Sunil Gavaskar's 10000 Test runs would be surpassed, but Border scaled 11000 in the fading light of his career's day - Alastair Cook has the years, the appetite and the determination to challenge the Indian maestro's numbers in Test cricket at least. If Cook gets even close to Mount 15921 - which, for the foreseeable future, should command the same reverence as Mount 99.94 and Mount 800 -  the reminder of his tale will be quite memorable. As things stand, he is already among the finest batsmen to have played for England. Cook will be quietly proud of that as he waits for toss time at the Gabba.

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