Let me be frank about this from the beginning. I do not rate Alastair Cook. Never have, probably never will. On the eve of the U-19 world cup in 2004 I had heard rumours that we had unearthed a teenage sensation who was about to take the cricketing world by storm. The experts on TV and in the broadsheets informed me he was not only a prolific run scorer, he was also stylish, intelligent and an England captain in waiting – much like a young Michael Atherton (but left handed). Cook did indeed have a good tournament. He scored two centuries and skippered England to the semi-finals. However, I was left decidedly underwhelmed by Cook’s batting.
Whereas the likes of Andrew Flintoff, Ben Hollioake, even Anthony McGrath looked like class acts at U-19 level, making mincemeat of bowlers in their age-group, Cook looked awkward and struggled to score at a healthy rate. The commentators might have been waxing lyrical about his abilities in their post match analysis, but I didn’t hold out much hope that he would be a force at test level. In fact, his television interviews and general off-field demeanour were much more impressive than his feats with the willow. It didn’t seem to matter though. Cook had charmed the press – just like he seems to have done with every coaching team he has worked with.
I admit that I’m a sucker for style. I’d take David Gower over Jonathan Trott any day of the week – and this surely explains why I have always been anti-Cook to a large extent. However, my dislike of Cook’s batting has logic too. If you were teaching a schoolboy how to open the batting, you could do worse than show him a video of Alastair Cook and tell him to do the opposite. Cook’s feet are leaden and he doesn’t bend his knee when he plays off the front foot. He also struggles to play straight; this was highlighted by his obsessive checking of his back-lift during the second test against Pakistan (not that it did him any good). How he has managed to score a relatively healthy 4238 runs at an average of 42.80 is beyond me.
Cook’s supporters point to his record and say it would be folly to drop a young player who has already achieved so much. However, I now believe that his age is almost irrelevant. The age of a player is important if you believe he is going to improve and mature. Cook’s record suggests otherwise. In fact, his best test innings was arguably the unbeaten 104 he made at Nagpur on his test debut. Cook averaged 46 in his first year in test cricket, but his record since then has not been as good. There has been no progression.
Before I get inundated with criticism, I want to elaborate on this. Consider Cook’s well publicised technical battles. The phrase ‘Cook is really struggling with his game today’ has become one of the clichés of the English summer. It’s the same every year. Cook scored a brilliant hundred against South Africa last winter in which he finally looked composed at the crease. However, this year he has regressed once more. I have now come to accept that technical travails are the norm for Alastair Cook. The times he looks comfortable with his batting are the aberration – despite having access to the some of the best coaches in the world (coaches who, incidentally, have transformed Andrew Strauss’ game in recent years).
So should Cook be dropped with the Ashes on the horizon? My instinct says yes. He has failed to reach 30 in eight consecutive test innings. How long can the team afford to carry somebody like that? Furthermore, it must be remembered that Cook’s record against Australia is pretty lamentable; he averages just 26 in ten matches against the canary yellows.
If Cook plays against Australia this winter, Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus will be licking their lips. There are so many ways to get him out. If they bowl a good line outside off stump, Cook is always likely to play away from his body (flat-footed) and offer a nick behind. Meanwhile, if they bowl straight he’s a prime lbw candidate; Cook hovers around the crease without getting forward, he regularly plays across his front pad, and often falls over to the offside (leaving his head outside the line of the ball). When Australian bowlers know there’s a Cook around, they start salivating like Merv Hughes at a pie shop. One of the truisms of cricket is that teams should always do what the opposition wants the least. You get the feeling that the Aussies would love us to stick with Cook.