If you repeat something often enough it becomes true. Well, it doesn’t actually become true, but it becomes accepted wisdom – something that’s partially true, or in some cases not true at all. Yesterday Stuart Broad reiterated one of the more popular pieces of accepted wisdom in English cricketing folklore: he called Alastair Cook, who has been a good opening test batsman for almost a decade, England’s best ever player. I think you’ll agree this sets the bar rather high. Which is why I’m going to argue something very different – that Alastair Cook is overrated.
I don’t blame Broad for spinning this yarn. His place in the team is currently under the microscope, and his captain is under pressure, so praising Cook kills two birds with one stone: it’s good sabre rattling before an important series and simultaneously endears him to the management. Stuart’s PR skills are obviously in fine rhythm.
Or are they? Good PR ceases to be good PR when it unravels effortlessly under close scrutiny. In this case, a quick trip to cricinfo’s Statsguru was enough to throw the validity of Broad’s assertion into question. If only more cricket pundits spent their time doing the same. If they did so they’d probably end up asking a very different question: is Cook the best England batsman of all time or the most overrated?
At first glance Cook’s test career is impressive: 8432 runs at 46.02. I’d certainly like those statistics next to my name. Historically, 8432 runs is a hell of a lot. Perhaps there’s no need to delve any further? A lot of people certainly think it’s case closed at this point. You can’t argue that Alastair Cook is overrated when he’s scored this many runs.
Well, the purpose of cricket blogs is to delve where many mainstream journalists fear to tread. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. My intention is not to skewer scared cows – perhaps there’s a few on Alastair’s farm – but I’m not going to accept a cow is holy simply because Stuart Broad tells me it is. I need hard evidence people.
For starters, let’s see how Cook’s average of 46 stacks up against other batsmen from the near and distance past. Yes, it’s difficult to compare batsmen from different eras, but I’m not the person arguing that Cook’s the best England batsman of all time. If you’re going to bring ‘all time’ into this, it’s impossible to ignore players from previous eras.
A quick glance at Statsguru reveals that approximately seventy players in test history have averaged more than Cook. A number of those played on uncovered pitches too.
But what about more recent batsmen? I discovered that thirty odd players from the last ten years (when batting averages have been higher) averaged more than Cook. In fact there are eighteen current players who average more than Cook. One of them is an Englishman, Joe Root, who averages over fifty. Another one is a little known player called Kevin Pietersen – who is generally considered a player of great innings, not a great batsman (let alone England’s best ever). On this evidence it becomes easy to argue that Alastair Cook is overrated.
Obviously averages and aggregates don’t really tell the whole story. Graeme Hick scored over 41,000 first class runs at 52, and Mark Ramprakash scored almost 36,000 at 53. Were Hick and Ramprakash great players? Perhaps they were on some level, against a certain standard of bowling, but they were often found wanting against the very best. Perhaps their best attribute was the ability to cash in against mediocre bowling – a skill that’s not to be sniffed at, but not something that qualifies them as two of England’s greatest.
When observers like Broad, and Cook’s many friends in the media, portray England’s skipper as the best player his country has ever produced, his twenty 25 test tons are usually cited as evidence. And why not? On the surface, a tally of twenty plus tons is mightily impressive. However, enquiring cricketing minds seek to look behind headline statistics. When assessing the value of innings, one surely has to take into account who the runs were scored against?
In the interests of analysing Cook’s career accurately and fairly, I’ve listed every one of his 25 test tons below. After each of them I’ve written down which bowlers these tons were scored against.
As a guide, I’ve put a * against what most observers would consider to be top class test bowling i.e. attacks that included two or more bowlers who averaged less than thirty in test cricket at the time. I’ve added a (*) when an attack was above average but short of top quality; for example, Southee and Boult are now considered good bowlers but were not on the same level in 2012/13 as they are now.
Alastair Cook’s Highest Test Scores
294 v India – Kumar, Sreesanth, Sharma, Mishra
235 v Australia – Hilfenhaus, Siddle, Johnson (2010 version), Watson
190 v India – Zaheer Khan, Sharma, Ashwin, Ojha
189 v Australia – Hilfenhaus, Johnson (2010 version), Siddle, Watson
176 v India – Zaheer Khan, Yadav, Ashwin, Ojha,
173 v Bangladesh – Hossain, Hussain, Shakib, Islam
160 v West Indies – Taylor, Edwards, Baker, Benn
148 v Australia – Harris, Bollinger, Siddle, Watson
139 v West Indies – Edwards, Powell, Taylor, Benn
133 v Sri Lanka – Lakmal, Perera, Herath, Maharoof
130 v New Zealand – Boult, Southee, Wagner, Bracewell (*)
127 v Pakistan – Sami, Gul, Razzaq, Kaneria
122 v India – Zaheer Khan, Ashwin, Ojha, Harbhajan
118 v South Africa – Steyn, Ntini, Morkel, Kallis *
118 v Sri Lanka – Murali, Vaas , Malinga, Welegedara *
116 v Australia – McGrath, Lee, Clark, Warne *
116 v New Zealand – Southee, Boult, Wagner, Martin (*)
115 v South Africa – Steyn, Philander, Morkel, Kallis *
110 v Pakistan – Amir, Asif, Riaz, Ajmal *
109 v Bangladesh – Islam, Razzaq, Shakib, Mahmudullah
106 v West Indies – Edwards, Taylor, Collymore, Bravo
106 v Sri Lanka – Welegedara, Lakmal, Fernando, Maharoof
105 v Pakistan – Sami, Gul, Razzaq, Kaneria
105 v West Indies – Powell, Taylor, Collymore, Bravo
104 v India – Pathan, Sreesanth, Kuble, Harbajhan
The above data reveals that Alastair Cook has scored just five test hundreds against top class bowling. Only four of these have come against quality pace attacks. What is more, if one looks at these innings closely, they mostly come with significant caveats that actually add weight to my argument that Alastair Cook is overrated (rather than the other way around).
The 116 Cook made at Perth (a ground tailor made for his style of batting) in 2006 was his only significant contribution of the series. He made a paltry 222 runs at an average of 25 in this (his first) Ashes series and was broadly sent packing by an unimpressed Australian side and sceptical public. The Aussies certainly agreed that Alastair Cook is overrated – at least they did at that point in time.
Cook’s career saving 110 against Pakistan at the Oval in 2010 was very similar to his scratchy 95 at Southampton last year. Cook was all over the place early in his innings and survived a number of agonising close calls before eventually settling down. Plus, once again, it was his only innings of note all series. He made just 167 runs in four tests at a miserable average of 24.
Cook’s 115 at The Oval in 2012 was complied on an uncharacteristically slow Oval surface; the Proteas made 637-2 in their first innings. What’s more Cook’s record in the series was a poor one: just 195 runs at an average of 32.5. It was a big series, and not for the first time, Cook went missing. This doesn’t sound like the best England batsman of all time to me.
If anything, Cook’s overall performances in these series indicate his weakness against top quality fast bowling not the reverse – the centuries were clearly aberrations amongst numerous failures. In fact, one could argue that Cook has only proven himself against top class opposition just twice:
Cook’s best performance came on the 2009 tour of South Africa in which he played what I believe was his best test innings. His 118 at Durban was a mature, composed knock, in which he blunted an extremely good attack.
However, it must be noted that Cook scored less runs on that tour than both Collingwood, who was often depicted as a limited player, and the much maligned Ian Bell too. Cook’s 287 runs at 41 was also notably less than his overall career average.
Just as impressive was Cook’s performance on the tour to Sri Lanka in 2007. His 118 at Galle was a very impressive innings for a young player. It is difficult to find any fault with his performance on this tour (he topped the averages 278 runs at 46) although it must be noted that the pitches were slow and Sri Lanka’s best bowlers were spinners. Cook has always been a very good player of spin. Cook’s ability to deal with Murali is not the issue here. It’s his technique against quality pace bowling that has always been his achilles heel.
When one looks at his other test hundreds, it’s apparent he has made a career of punishing limited attacks – a surefire sign that Alastair Cook is overrated. Ten of his twenty-five centuries have arguably come against worse bowling than you’d expect in the first division of the county championship. The five tons against the West Indies, the two against Bangladesh, and two of his centuries against Sri Lanka were particularly easy runs (his 133 came against a seam attack of Lakmal, Perera and Maharoof, who had a combined test average of over 50).
I’m sure many of Cook’s fans will point to his performances against Australia in 2010/11 as evidence of his prowess. Two of his four highest test scores came on that tour. His supporters might even point out that Mitchell Johnson played in that series. It’s a point worth discussing here.
As all England fans know, Mitchell Johnson bowled to left, the right, the left and back to the right again in that series. His test average at the time was on the wrong side of thirty, and his action was in tatters. Furthermore Cook’s nemesis, Ryan Harris, missed two of the test matches. Cook’s two highest scores of the series (two of his three tons) came in the games Harris missed through injury.
Australia’s 2010/11 attack was led by Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle – arguably the weakest new ball pairing Australia had fielded for decades. Indeed, Australia’s attack was completely out-gunned by a not so terrific trio of Anderson, Tremlett and Bresnan. My overriding memory of that tour was David Lloyd and Ian Botham celebrating the toothless nature of Australia’s bowlers, and the Aussie commentators lamenting the paucity of resources at Ricky Ponting’s disposal.
Having said all that, however, it seems unfair to present Cook’s record in a negative light without comparing him to other England players. Although Cook clearly isn’t great when assessed against his international contemporaries, perhaps he should be ranked as purely ‘an English great’. In other words, if we lower the bar, then maybe it becomes harder to argue that Alastair Cook is overrated.
Although I’m tempted to compare Cook with the aforementioned Graeme Hick, who was considered a failure at test level, I must admit they’re totally different players. Therefore all I’ll say – and you might find this interesting – is that Hick scored three of his five test hundreds against the following attacks (their averages are in brackets):
Graeme Hick’s Highest Test Scores (3 of 5 hundreds)
178 v India – Kapil Dev (29), Prabhakar (32), Kumble (29) and Raju (31)
141 v South Africa – Donald (22), Pollock (23), Schultz (20) Matthews (29)
118 v West Indies – Walsh (24), Bishop (24), Benjamin (30), Dhanraj (74)
I’d politely suggest that these three test centuries equal (or even surpass) most of Cook’s centuries for England. Hick’s other two test tons came against a Sri Lankan side containing Murali, and a Zimbabwe team that boasted Heath Streak. Not too shabby I’m sure you’ll agree. If only Hick had been able to feast on Lakmal and Perera.
However, instead of dissecting Hick’s career, I think it would be much wiser to compare Cook to another English opener. I randomly chose Michael Atherton, whose test average of 37 was, well, pretty average at first glance. Of course, Athers also suffered from a hereditary back condition that made it almost impossible to move around the crease after his thirtieth birthday. This obviously impacted his career.
Anyway, here is a list of Atherton’s test centuries (sixteen in all) and who they were scored against. I’ve put a * against the very good attacks – although in Athers’ case they were usually bloody frightening rather than merely ‘very good’.
Mike Atherton’s Highest Test Scores
185 v South Africa – Donald, Pollock, Pringle, McMillan *
160 v India – Srinath, Prasad, Kumble, Raju
151 v New Zealand – Hadlee, Morrison, Snedden, Bracewell (*)
144 v West Indies – Ambrose, Walsh, W.Benjamin, K.Benjamin *
136 v Zimbabwe – Streak, Nkala, Johnson, Mbangwa
135 v West Indies – Ambrose, Walsh, W.Benjamin, K.Benjamin *
131 v India – Kapil Dev, Prabhakar, Kumble, Hirwani (*)
125 v Pakistan – Waqar Younis, Razzaq, Saqlain, Kaneria *
118 v New Zealand – Allott, Doull, Davis, Vettori
113 v West Indies – Walsh, Bishop, K. Benjamin, Dhanraj *
111 v New Zealand – Nash, Owens, Pringle, Hart
108 v South Africa – Donald, Pollock, Hayward, Klusener *
108 v West Indies – Ambrose, Walsh, McLean, Nagamootoo *
105 v Australia – Alderman, Reid, Rackemann, Matthews *
103 v South Africa – Donald, Pollock, Klusener, P. Adams *
101 v New Zealand – Davis, Nash, Larsen, Hart
As you can see, nine of Atherton’s test centuries came against extremely hostile attacks. These centuries were made against all time greats like Donald, Pollock, Ambrose, Walsh and Waqar. This proves, beyond reasonable doubt, Atherton’s ability to do what openers do best: see off the new ball and withstand genuine, top class fast bowling.
Although Atherton scored a few easy runs against New Zealand, his highest score against the Kiwis was made against the great Richard Hadlee. What’s more, his runs against India came against attacks that featured two all-time India greats (Kapil Dev and Anil Kumble) playing in the same team.
My aim here is not to try and prove that Atherton was better than Cook. I’m simply providing information that will help readers decide whether Alastair Cook is overrated. Was he really is an all time great, or simply even an England great?
As I said above, it’s hard to compare batsmen from different eras. What I do know for sure, however, is that Atherton has never been described as England’s best ever batsman, despite his list of hugely impressive centuries against some of the best bowlers the world has ever seen. Let’s just revisit the score here: it’s Atherton nine, Alastair Cook five.
Of course, statistics like these can only show us so much. They provide insight but do have weaknesses. For example, nobody knows how Cook would have fared against the hostile bowling encountered by Atherton and his creaking back. Given the opportunity to face top class seam bowling more often, maybe Cook would have scored a similar (or greater) number of runs? What’s more, who’s to say that Atherton would have scored as heavily against the likes of Fidel Edwards and Corey Collymore as Cook?
This is where guesswork (or rather educated guessing) comes in. Based on his record against New Zealand, I suspect Atherton would have filled his boots against the bowlers of the last ten years – although I cannot say this for certain.
What’s more, the fact that Cook has scored just four centuries against top quality fast bowling, and that three of these innings came in series in which he struggled mightily, I think it’s fair to assume that Cook’s career would have been most disappointing had he played in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What’s more Cook’s career record against Australia – he has disappointed in six of his seven Ashes series – suggests that when Stuart Broad called his captain the best batsman in England’s history, he simply hadn’t done his research properly.
Is Broad aware that Cook has never scored an Ashes century at home despite having more opportunities to do so than any of his contemporaries? Is Broad aware that Cook has the second worst average of any English opening batsman in home Ashes series since World War One (minimum of five games)? I bet he isn’t.
I bet he doesn’t realise that the one player who has a worse record than Cook, Mark Butcher, actually scored one of the best centuries ever made by an Englishman in the Ashes when he batted number three at Headingley in 2001. Therefore, one could argue that Cook is actually the most disappointing player on the list.
The next twelve months are absolutely critical for Alastair Cook and England. If our captain wants to save his test career he’ll have to do something he has never done before: score runs consistently against top class opposition.
If Cook can score heavily against New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa in the next calendar year, then I might start taking people who call him England’s best ever batsman more seriously. Until then, I’ll keep arguing that Alastair Cook is overrated.*
Runs against the West Indies will help to ease the pressure, but I cannot agree with those who will doubtless claim that Cook’s back in business if he succeeds in the Caribbean. Runs against a threadbare Windies side will mean nothing in the scheme of Cook’s career: it will simply prove that at his best, Cook is still extremely adept at punishing very mediocre bowling.
The problem with England’s captain (as the data demonstrates) is that Cook’s best is rarely good enough against the very best. At thirty years of age, Cook should be at his peak. Unfortunately, no test centuries for nearly two years suggests that Cook is actually past his best.
It is time for Alastair Cook took to stand up and be counted. Good player though he is (especially against spin) the next year will be all about how he copes with a sustained barrage of top quality pace bowling. Let’s pray he’s up to the challenge. His country desperately needs him.
* Update: Cook subsequently disappointed in these series. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. In fact, his career generally wound down after I wrote this article and he ultimately retired. His biggest success was a double hundred made at the MCG which was, typically, a completely dead and slow surface that completely nullified Australia’s fast bowlers. It was a great feat of concentration – classic Cook – but like in the subcontinent, slow pitches make it difficult for pacemen to expose his technical foibles.