We’ve published a lot of articles about England’s test skipper over the years but this new one, by guest writer Jack Mendel, looks at Cook’s records from a different angle. I have to admit it’s not something I’ve considered before …
Alastair Cook is the first English batsman to break into an elite group of modern-great players, but his career has been inflated by how much England play.
Without a doubt, England’s captain is one of the greatest English batsmen ever, and will no doubt be one of the leading Test batsman ever too by the end of his career.
Yet, he has had a big advantage in that he’s played, in some cases, more than double the amount of cricket that his closest contemporaries have.
Of the top 20 batsmen on the ‘most Test runs list’ of all time, only Allan Border, Graham Gooch and Javed Miandad retired before the year 2000. The record books have been redefined in the last 15-20 years, and England have rather missed the boat. Cook is one of only two Englishmen in the top 25 top run-scorers ever. India and Australia both have five.
The main reason Cook is viewed with such admiration in world cricket is not because of his swashbuckling style or awe-inspiring power; it’s his longevity. After all, he has been playing in the golden age of batting, in the shadows of legends such as Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis.
His breakthrough into the top 10 is historic, and is on top of an array of other impressive records he has been piling up. But he isn’t in the same category of greatness as Lara, Tendulkar or Kallis.
Cook is a grinder, not a genius. Bowlers don’t fear him. And, if he was playing in any other team, he probably wouldn’t have the amount of runs he does.
Out of the top 15 Test run scorers in history, Cook has played by far the most Tests per year (on average). This is a major advantage when it comes to accumulating runs.
- Sachin Tendulkar played 200 played Tests between 1989-2013 = 8.3 Tests per year
- Ricky Ponting played 168 Tests between 1995 – 2012 = 9.8 Tests per year
- Jacques Kallis played 166 Tests between 1996 – 2013 – = 9.8 Tests per year
- Rahul Dravid played 164 Tests between 1996 -2012 = 10.25 Tests per year
- Kumar Sangakkara played 134 Tests between 2000 – 2015 = 8.9 Tests per year
- Brian Lara – 131 played Tests between 1990- 2006 = 8.18 Tests per year
- Shiv Chanderpaul played 164 Tests between 1994 – 2015 = 7.8 Tests per year
- Mahela Jayawardene played 149 Tests between 1997 – 2014 = 8.7 Tests per year
- Allan Border played 156 played 1979 Tests between 1994 = 10.4 Tests per year
- Steve Waugh played 168 Tests between 1985 – 2004 = 8.84
- Sunil Gavaskar played 125 – Tests between 1971-1987 = 7.8 Tests per year
- Younis Khan played* 115 Tests between 2000-2017 = 6.7 Tests per year
- Graeme Smith played 117 Tests between 2002-2014 = 9.75 Tests per year
- Graham Gooch – played 118 Tests between 1975-1995 = 5.9 Tests per year
Cook has played* 140 Tests between 2006-2016. That’s a mind-boggling 14 tests per year.
In other words, Cook is a great run scorer (of that there is no question) but he’s also a player that has had, in some cases, double the amount of playing time as other players in the same bracket.
If any other batsman on this distinguished list had played 14 tests per year, they’d have probably scored a lot more runs than Alastair. After all, every single one of them has a higher batting average.
Not for one moment would I challenge Cook’s right to be in the upper-echelons of English greatness. He’s the highest run scorer England have ever had.
However, if he ends up as the top run scorer in test history at the end of his career, it doesn’t necessarily make him the greatest batsman ever.
When looking at ‘the best’, it’s not just about numbers. It’s about how. It’s about the rate at which greats accumulated their greatness. After all, Cook’s batting average of 46 isn’t even in the top 60 highest averages of all time.
Having said that, Cook might go down as the most (or one of the most) durable players of all time. And that’s certainly nothing to be sniffed at.
I worked out once that if Len Hutton or Younus Khan had played the same number of Tests per year as Cook, and maintained their standard, both would have scored over 20,000 Test runs. People say they wouldn’t have maintained their standard – but why not? Cook may play a lot of Test cricket but he hasn’t had to play much in other formats. Hutton played over twice the number of f/c games Cook has and Younus has played over twice the number of ODIs.
I also compared the quality of bowling attacks Cook has faced. I rated a great bowling attack as one with two bowlers averaging under 25 with 100+ wickets (28 for spinners – they’ve on average taken their wickets at 3 runs more in Tests since WW1). Cook at the time (this was before the India series) had played only 7% of his Tests against great attacks. To be fair, he wasn’t the only opener about who this was true – Gavaskar, Boycott, Greenidge, Graeme Smith and Hayden had similar figures (either because of the era they played in – or because their team had the best attack). However the likes of Gooch and Trescothick plaed about 25% of their careers against great attacks and for Atherton (and therefore almost certainly Alec Stewart) the figure was an astonishing 50%.
Cook’s average put him around the Justin Langer or Gary Kirsten level of player. Both were very good players – but would anyone call either great?
Great comment Simon. I wrote a similar piece a while back but I looked at attacks that had two bowlers (of any kind) averaging under 30. Very few of Cook’s test tons qualified. Perhaps 15% from memory.
Cook has obviously been a very fine player for England, and the team would’ve been lost without him at times (especially considering the paucity of other test quality openers in recent years), but I know what you mean about the likes of Stewart.
Sir Alec (as I like to call him) averaged 40 for England in tests against Ambrose & Walsh, Wasim & Waqar, Donald & Pollock, McGrath & Warne, and Vaas & Murali. He also kept wicket in many of those games.
As a pure opener he averaged 45 in test cricket. I’d rather have his test career / runs over Cook’s any day. Stewart was a far better player of top quality fast bowling than Cook (remember the two hundreds in Barbados?) but Alastair is a far better player of spin. Then again, he didn’t have to face Warne, Murali very often!
Gary Kirsten played about 10% of his matches not as an opener and his record is significantly better in those.
What is impressive about Alec’s record is that he was often playing in sides getting walloped to illustrate in the history of Test Cricket in won matches each wicket costs 39.41 and in losing causing only 22.37.
In someway the most impressive thing about Cook career is that he plays in home matches in the conditions he struggles in the most.
Cook has never been dropped – even when he deserved to be – that is a great advantage for accumulating runs. Apart from his very early days he’s always batted in the same position as well – that’s another great advantage. Opening the batting means that you often get a second innings when batsmen in the middle order miss out. Being treated as a player who anchors the innings or grinds out the runs – you can choose the metaphor – he takes less risks and other players have to take more as they bat around him. Cook bats in his own way even when declaration runs are being demanded. Tough on other batsmen. Too bad. When he was going through his trough as captain post Ashes Down Under he was told that his position was protected – no other player was safe. The search for Cook’s partner is not unlike those suitors being sought in Arabian stories for the princess. (Not good enough). He is a solid batsman who’s had a silver spoon rammed down his throat by his Essex fairy godmothers – pity really – I feel he might have actually become a better player – with more shots – if he had been left alone. One of the worst memories for poor Cook was Flower standing on the boundary rope shouting instructions in the middle of a game – like a football manager. Now we have Hussain lecturing us at every field change about what a good captain he is. No. He isn’t. But he will have the record for longevity. That about sums him up.
Cook wouldn’t have been good enough to get into the test team of the 90s and early 2000s.
Have you forgotton English cricket in the 90s??? One of my favourites, http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/current/match/63610.html, when England were beaten by an innings and 62 runs against an Australian attack led by the much feared openning bowling combination of Merv Hughes and Mark Waugh.
Cook is a very capable player and there would be few test teams from any country ever that he wouldn’t be in the top 6 batsmen. He just not, as this article demonstrates, amongst the very best of all time.
agreed with the writer ” Cook is a great run scorer (of that there is no question) but he’s also a player that has had, in some cases, double the amount of playing time as other players in the same bracket “