Remarkably, Alastair Cook threw off his horrid run to end the third day of the fourth Ashes Test at Melbourne at 244*. It was his 32nd Test century and his sixth and largest against Australia.
When he got to his first hundred he appeared more relieved than elated. It was as if he had finally crossed the finish line of a gruelling long-distance race. And it was a good thing it was the last over of the day too, for the England opener seemed too exhausted to go on much longer.
One can readily understand how Cook must have felt. Failing to reach 50 in his last ten innings, there were voices saying he was on his last legs as a batsman. There were experts pontificating that his form had taken a terminal dive. And he’d have come into the game very concerned about his lack of runs, having totalled only 83 runs in the six innings of the first three games.
This century was one of his more fluent efforts. It was plain, from the start of his innings, that he was going to be more assertive at the crease, which, in turn, led to more surefootedness. He looked a different player from the prodding, unbalanced batsman of the first three Tests.
Instead of being burdened by recent failures he played with the freedom and fearlessness of a man with nothing to lose. He admitted that he wasn’t fully confident that he’d retain his place in the side for the Sydney test. “When you’re averaging 13 there is no point dying wondering,” he said after his 104* at stumps on the second day. “What is the worst that can happen? You can get a low score and get left out – that’s the worst that can happen I suppose – but it’s amazing what can happen, more crisp footwork, more intent and suddenly you get away.”
Highly proficient on the cut and pull shots, even on bad days, he widened his range in this Melbourne innings, driving with aplomb down the ground and through the covers. “This is the best I’ve ever seen him play driving down the ground,” Ian Chappell remarked on commentary.
This was Cook at his best, the fiercely focused batsman who became England’s leading run-scorer in Tests; one of the best and most productive opening batsmen in the game.
The difference between Melbourne and what came before was noticeable. All those of us watching know is that Cook’s movements were more decisive, that he appeared to be more confident, that he was striking the ball more forcefully. We don’t know, and perhaps he doesn’t either, what occurred between Perth and Melbourne that accounted for the improvement. He had survived a rough, lean patch and emerged on the other side with all his best qualities as a batsman intact. The good form had returned, perhaps like it left, without discernable rhyme or reason.
That is why we should not be in too much of a hurry to call for the exit of the great player enduring a bad patch. Sachin Tendulkar suffered a poor run of form that began in 2004 and never really ended until sometime in 2007. But it was followed by the most productive period in his career. Brian Lara came through lean spells as well, as did every batsman not named Bradman.
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Form flees from every player at some point and had fled from Cook before. But, considering his stellar record, and that he had just turned 33, wasn’t all the talk that he was nearing the end a bit premature? At that age, especially with today’s fitness routines, he should be closer to his peak than he is to the end.
It should be noted, in fairness, that Cook benefitted from some good fortune. Melbourne has so far been the flattest surface of the series. There was no Mitchell Starc, Australia’s most incisive bowler, and Pat Cummins, suffering from a stomach ailment on the second day, was not his real self. The batsman was also dropped on 66 by Steve Smith off Hazlewood.
But that should detract little from his efforts. Australia only managed 327 in their first innings, and only Joe Root, 61, managed to score more than 26 in England’s innings until Stuart Broads rapid 56.
Cook’s batting on the third day was not as fluent as it was on the second day. Batting for his life he chose to forcefully impose himself on proceedings at the beginning of his knock. And after wringing back some control of his batting and his future, he became more like the batsman he had been for most of his career. His drives down the ground were still sublime, exemplified by the sweetly struck straight drive off Jackson Bird that brought up his double. His first hundred came off 164 deliveries, his double required 196 more, still fairly rapid by his normal standards as he appeared slightly more watchful during the second half of his innings.
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The day ended with Cook on 244, having dragged his side to a huge 491/9 and a lead of 164. England should surely not lose from this position. For that, they have to thank a revitalized Alastair Cook.