What makes Alastair a tough 'Cook'ie - Analysing the England skipper's Test career
When Alastair Cook made his debut as a 21-year-old against India in Nagpur during March 2006, not many would have expected him to go on to lead his country and become the youngest batsman as well the first Englishman to post 10,000 Test runs. The startling fact of his achievement is that only one other opener features in this exclusive list, a certain Sunil Gavaskar.
However, one aspect stood out from the left-hander’s debut. Without any prior experience of tackling top class spin, Cook’s perseverance negotiated the menace of two of India’s greatest ever spinners in a manner which was largely unseen in the country. On an abrasive and sluggish surface, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh were put to the sword by a novice.
In a way, it was fitting that the Indian cricket fraternity was the first to catch sight of Alastair. The methodical batsman would play some of his best knocks in the sub-continental nation and be touted by several experts to overtake the Test tally of India's most adored cricketer.
Irrespective of whether he gets there or not, Cook has etched his name as one of the best ever batsmen to grace the sport. If you think opening in Test cricket is an extremely arduous job, then try doing it in English conditions where the Dukes ball does all sorts of things in the first session or two.
Maybe, that explains why his average of 46.49 is the lowest among all 12 members in the 10,000-run club. In terms of runs scored per Tests, Cook’s 78.6 is far better than Sir Viv Richards’ 70.6 and is only slightly behind Tendulkar’s or Ricky Ponting’s comparable 79.6
The southpaw has scored centuries in all the countries that he has played in. Aside from Zimbabwe whom England last toured in 1996, Cook’s 28 Test tons (including a mammoth 263 against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi) have all come in different conditions across the globe and resulted in loss only on five occasions.
During England’s historic triumphs in Australia (2010-11) and India (2012), Cook was at the forefront with his unrelenting grit and unmatchable temperament. Both of those tours showcased the vast reservoirs of diligence and resolve.
In the Ashes opener at Brisbane, the ‘Three Lions’ were still adrift of 202 runs when they began their second innings on day four. Cook responded with a fighting 235 not out as the Australian team was ground into the dust. The double century set the tone for a spectacular tour which contained three innings victories for England as well as 766 runs for the left-hander at a monumental average of 127.66.
When Alastair was appointed full-time skipper, his first outing came against the Indians on their own den. As the hosts were preparing to dish out revenge for a catastrophic tour to England in the previous season, Cook led from the front with an indomitable performance. After an enduring 176 which helped avoid innings defeat, he made successive centuries in Mumbai and Kolkata to lead his side to an astonishing series win.
Though Kevin Pietersen stole the limelight for an attacking hundred at Wankhede, England pretty much owed the success to their captain who topped the batting charts due to his phlegmatic consistency.
Rebounding from the infamous ‘KP’ saga
While his adaptability and commitment to England cricket has never come under question, there was a phase when majority of Cook’s countrymen were baying for his blood. After suffering a 5-0 whitewash at the hands of arch-rivals Australia in 2013-14, the English team were left licking wounds inflicted upon them by a mustachioed Mitchell Johnson.
The ramifications were so immense that Head Coach Andy Flower left his job and the ECB decided to conduct a thorough review on speculations of disintegration in the dressing room. Murmurs grew when Board Director Paul Downton had termed Pietersen as ‘disinterested’ and ‘distracted’ during the Sydney Test.
ECB’s decision to ostracize the flamboyant Pietersen and whole-heartedly back Cook was not received well by the cricket-loving public. The displeasure became louder after the latter led England to their first ever series loss (comprising of 2 or more matches) to Sri Lanka at home.
With a sword hanging over his head, Cook kept the captaincy and quietly looked to rebuild his technique with Graham Gooch by facing countless balls in practice sessions. The situation gradually improved as young blood was infused into the set-up and England’s Test team reemerged from the Ashes.
Alongside the mercurial Ben Stokes, Alastair rescued England from a tentative position with a determined 162 against the Kiwis at Lords. The summer was capped off by defeating the boorish Aussies to reclaim the iconic urn.
At a time when away victories are akin to an oasis on parched deserts, it is worth remembering that ‘Captain Cook’ shepherded his team to a landmark conquest of South Africa. The same naysayers who had earlier doubted his credentials were won over.
However, for all the positives, Alastair has had his fair share of flaws as well. Normally composed at the crease, he often looks unsettled when confronted by hostile quick bowling. More recently, a tendency to reach out to balls outside the off-stump has also seeped into his game.
Despite all those weaknesses, Cook’s greatest strength lies in his unwavering disposition and a gifted instinct to separate the good deliveries from the rest. The underlying reason behind a successful career as an opener in swinging conditions has been the habit of leaving threatening deliveries based on length rather than line.
When Alastair whipped a harmless one through the leg-side to reach the coveted 10,000-run mark, the ball seemed to test everyone’s patience as it gently trickled into the boundary. Perhaps, it was symbolic of his stature in the cricket world.
The likes of AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli and David Warner are regularly among the headlines while Cook’s tenacity largely flies under the radar. In an era of powerful ball striking and limited-overs razzmatazz, the 31-year-old's tranquil approach to batting deserves wholehearted applause.