Alastair Cook: A flash in the Cook's pan
While all the hype in the pre-match build-up to the India-England Test series had been majorly consumed by India's 3-1 tragedy in 2014, Virat Kohli and his scores to settle, and vindictive exchanges of glances at the local pub, most people would have forgotten that there existed a two-month long English tour of India back in 2016, sandwiched between India's two tours to the UK.
What that tour is reminiscent of, for the average English fan, is perhaps a certain Nair's triple ton, Anderson's blush in India's dust-bowls, the implacable heat of Chennai, and Cook's last Test series as England captain.
They saw him on the 10th of June -- notching up an archetypally flamboyant half-century, playing for county champions Essex against Lancashire at Old Trafford. As he was doing his drills before the commencement of play on Day 1, Cook would've borne in his mind the inexorably magnifying public exasperation over his poor showing in international cricket, and the fact that he was yet to score a century against arch-rivals Lancashire.
His shuffle across the off-stump, as Joe Mennie approached the bowling crease, was one of exaggeration and hunger; but then he edged to second slip, where his ex-opening partner Haseeb Hameed dropped the catch with the reverence you offer your teacher.
Cook's shoulders slumped again. He knew for once that he'd played the first line of the ball. Throughout his innings of 58, Cook cut down on cross-batted shots, exemplified the drive down the ground, and displayed a canny awareness of where his off-stump was -- precisely what he'd done to perfection during his unbeaten knock of 244 at the MCG some eight months back.
But since that double century, he has averaged 19.38 across 8 Test matches, 5 of which were played at home. To get a clearer picture of his malaise, in the 25 Tests post his 243 against West Indies at Edgbaston last summer, Cook has averaged just 27. Take out his 244 at the MCG, he averages 16. And in 17 of these 25 innings, he has failed to make it past 20.
Cook is undoubtedly England's best opening batsman ever. His spree of achievements extends beyond the ability of most other international batsmen, as proven many a time by his dogged resistance and indefatigable fortitude in times of crises. And at the age of 33, with already 12,225 runs under his belt, it would not be preposterous to assume that he is in with a chance of being the highest scoring Test cricketer ever.
His legendary stature in the English dispensation can never come into question. No other English batsman has more Test centuries than him -- 32. No other English cricketer has played or captained his side for more matches than him. No other English cricketer has an appetite for daddy-hundreds as him.
Opening in England can be a very hard job, but Cook has the technique, temperament, and skill to do that, his career average of 45.11 being the testament to that. He has absolutely no need for proving his prowess to the world once again.
But after a string of low scores, reading 5, 2, 2, 14, 70, 1, 46, 13, 0, 21, 29, and 17, Cook's England career finds itself at crossroads. Despite Captain Joe Root's reassurance about his place in the team, one cannot help but fear that the swansong of his career is perhaps increasingly nearer.
He doesn't need to prove to the world that he is still alive and kicking; he wants to.
Cook reminds himself that he has a record to set straight. He reminds himself that he has doubters to prove wrong. He walks out of the Edgbaston dressing room amidst loud cheering from the English fans and notices a poster reading 'Go, Cooky!'. Cook has his task cut out.
He negotiates an ordinary spell from Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami with insouciant ease and feels at home having played out 27 deliveries. Then he sees Ravichandran Ashwin showing up and giving the balls a zillion revs; Cook leans onto his front-foot and extends his bat in defence, only to hear the sound of timber behind him that all opening batsmen in the world dread.
Cook's shoulders slump again.
It is his defence that has indeed been exploited by the Indian bowlers. It might seem ludicrous to reprimand the defensive game of one of Test cricket's most prolific run scorers, but Alastair Cook's defence, of late, has turned out to be unconvincing and fairly mysterious -for he dead-bats the ball in front of his eyes, right before his front foot, unlike during the times when he would produce imperiously crafted tons out of his pocket.
It is nothing less than unbelievable, that he has been out to one out of every 50 defensive shots he has offered since 2015, in stark contrast to his affinity for defence all through his career in an English shirt.
The Indian opening duo of Dhawan and Rahul were successful in their craft at Trent Bridge because they played behind the line of the ball, right under their noses, waiting for the ball to come to them rather than moving towards the ball. This is of prime importance in conditions as in England, where you can neither trust the bounce nor the line of the ball; they climb onto you treacherously if you intend to ignore them.
Thirty-three is the age at which many international batsmen find their careers blossoming. Thirty-three is the age at which Michael Phelps won a sixth Olympic Gold medal. Thirty-three is the age at which you experience the happiest times of your life.
Yet, Alastair Cook's visage looks so morose and grievous, that the most apathetic of rocks would experience a scintilla of pathos and sympathy, and hope that England's premier batsman will hit form and get some crucial runs on the board.
What we see in England's record books, is a batsman who is currently unsure of where his off-stump is. He is evidently short of confidence, and with the media constantly being a flea in his ear, it would be a task quite demanding to regain that. And on top of that, Ishant Sharma, who has already gotten him 11 times in his career, is more suited than any other bowler to exploit that weakness of his. Cook has his task cut out.
So he takes his guard again at Trent Bridge, with a renewed hunger and unequivocal passion. He exhibits grit and sees out a probing spell from Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah. Only to be caught at second slip off Ishant Sharma.
Cook's shoulders slumped again.
To add to their woes, England are now searching for two opening batsmen, rather than one. Strauss's retirement was a disaster for them, for a reserve opener had never been considered necessary in their scheme of things.
They have gone from Nick Compton to Joe Root to Sam Robson to Jonathan Trott, followed by Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings in the recent past. Jennings seems to be certain to lose the race for the 4th Test, and Rory Burns seems to be the next candidate.
The greatest of sportsmen are those who vault over the hurdle called age and come out with flying colours in their quest for victory, even in the most tumultuous of times. Cook's form is not just a concern for England, for if his woes are to continue, he could well turn out to be a liability for the team.
But alas, that is only if there was not a scintilla of falsity in Root's words at the Press Conference. As of now, it is safe to assume that England's greatest Test batsman has two more Tests to salvage his career.
Modified 20 Dec 2019, 17:15 IST