I sometimes wonder what Alastair Cook might have been in another life. What job would have suited him in a world without cricket? Because he scrubs up pretty well, and looks rather dapper in a dinner jacket, some might see him as a James Bond character – making the ladies swoon with his clean cut Englishness.
However, he’s probably not quite daring enough to be a secret agent. In fact, sometimes I think he’s more like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings. “Is it still raining at Edgbaston? I hadn’t noticed”.
If one was to ask the West Indies, they might say Alastair would fit in well at the Gestapo. After all, he’s become an expert at breaking the opposition. Cook was born to grind opponents into the ground and destroy their resolve. When he was finally dismissed for 243 yesterday evening, the Windies could barely manage half a celebration. They were just glad it was over.
Obviously some people in the mainstream media (and social media) have gone all gooey eyed over Cook’s latest epic – it’s always thus whenever Alastair does anything impressive – but it’s always best to see things in context rather than going over the top.
The truth is that Alastair hasn’t been at his best for some time. Before this game he’d only scored two hundreds in his last 47 test innings. And for all the criticism of Joe Root’s conversion rate, Alastair had only converted five of his last 31 half-centuries.
My personal views on Cook haven’t changed since his first year in test cricket. I don’t think he’s a great player – whatever ‘great’ means – because I don’t think his technique is quite good enough to withstand the very best fast bowling. Names like McGrath, Harris, Morkel and Philander spring to mind. What’s more, he can’t dominate high class fast bowling in the same way that Gooch, Vaughan, Stewart and Trescothick occasionally used to do. It’s always a matter of survival with Cook … hanging on for grim death.
However, as yesterday proved once again (just like his other three test double hundreds did) Cook has everything else a high class opening batsman needs in spades: focus, grit, determination, and an absolutely relentless appetite for runs. Whereas Joe Root occasionally gets out because he loses concentration (probably because it’s all a bit easy for him), Alastair is never ever satisfied. He wants every single run he can reap. And because of this the statistical achievements just keep mounting up. Basically, he’s one hell of an impressive character.
Yesterday’s epic therefore didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: Cook is remarkable in many ways. His longevity, both in terms of his stamina to play long innings as well as his long-term fitness, is unparalleled in modern English cricket. When it comes to cashing in against ailing attacks (or in benign conditions) nobody does it better than Alastair. And I doubt nobody ever has.
However, let’s not forget that Cook has had a somewhat underwhelming summer. He’s rarely looked comfortable unless Philander was off the field or Morkel was having a breather. Soft runs against the West Indies doesn’t change this. And boy were they soft runs. The big issues at Edgbaston shouldn’t be the ‘day-night’ thing, it’s the extremely sad demise of West Indies cricket. It almost makes one want to cry.
Because of all this, I still think Cook has something to prove this winter – which might seem like an odd thing to say about a player with 31 test hundreds and almost 150 games under his belt. The fact is that Alastair’s Ashes record isn’t particularly good. Yes he was superb in 2010/11 when the Aussies were in disarray and Siddle and Hilfenhaus were opening the bowling, but he’s disappointed in his other five Ashes series. In fact, he’s never scored a single Ashes hundred in England – a quite remarkable statistic that not many people know.
What’s more, as mentioned above, Cook’s record against top class fast bowling is somewhat underwhelming. The statistics prove that he’s at his best against attacks that don’t test his technique, or on flat subcontinental wickets that offer the seamers very little. It’s no coincidence that his last three test centuries came at Rajkot (a high-scoring affair where six batsmen men hundreds in the match), Abu Dhabi (another batsman’s paradise where Shoaib Malik made 245), and Manchester, where Root made 325 runs in the match on his own.
The truth is that Cook has rarely risen to the occasion and played in a blinder in games bowlers have dominated. He occasionally battles through by surviving and leaving the ball well, but he never makes batting look easy in games where others have struggled (like Root often does). This, of course, is the mark of truly great players.
Consequently, England don’t really need Cook’s runs now – against a dispirited popgun attack. We need him to stand up and prove his perceived quality in the cauldron of an Ashes struggle. We need him to do what Gooch used to do at his best: dominate a world class attack and show the other batsmen that the opposition are mortal after all. And it’s not just Gooch I’m thinking of. One could point to Vaughan down under in 2002/2003, or Alec Stewart in Barbados in 1994. Other England openers of recent times have done it. Now Cook must lead the way too.
I’ve said for a long time that Cook will be England’s key man this winter. He simply must score runs for England to have a hope of retaining the Ashes. If Alastair can do that then we might finally be able to call him ‘great’ with some justification.
Therefore I ask everyone to hold back the hyperboles for now. After all, you’ll have nothing left in the tank if Alastair does actually produce some genuine, meaningful, heroics this winter. Never forget that Ravi Bopara also has three test hundreds against the West Indies. And Adam Voges also has three (with a top score of 269*). And where are they now?
Thus far this test match has demonstrated the tragic state of West Indies fast bowling far more than anything else. Which is why we celebrating individual landmarks feels just a little inappropriate to me.