“If there is an uglier top three in the world than Andrew Strauss, Cook and Trott, I don’t know of it.”
Graeme Swann once stated the above words about England’s top three at one time. Two of them are gone and the third is playing his last Test match. Once popular for their old-school modus operandi, England have gone from a team of grinders to a platoon of maniac hitters spearheaded by a maverick Irish skipper in the limited-overs set-up.
The Test team, though, remained fairly unblemished by the gregarious ways of the limited-overs outfit, largely due to the presence of one man – Alastair Cook. The former England skipper is perhaps a terminarch, the last of his kind in world cricket.
With curtains closing on an illustrious career, Alastair Cook, who had announced his retirement after the Oval Test, went on to summarise in one innings a short reel of his entire Test career. There was the old-fashioned leave, the dead bat defensive strokes that barely pushed the ball outside the pitch and some out of fashion nudges with soft hands.
For a generation thriving on orgasmic power hitting, Cook’s grind that lasted 190 balls was a dragged award-winning documentary, one which you laud on your Twitter account but hesitate to watch.
According to a CricViz data, Cook has left 5254 balls in his Test career. That’s more than half the number of balls Virat Kohli has faced in his entire Test career! If you aren’t a Test purist, Cook can bore you. He can wear you out with his relentless patience and insane attention to detail. In an Alastair Cook tribute last week by Nathan Leamon, England’s performance analyst, there is a quip related to how future generations might gape at Cook’s 159 consecutive Test record. What it does not state is how he kept himself unhurried in a world of Jason Roys and Jos Buttlers. Sticking to an age-old method and finding success from it despite the whole world moving on is terribly difficult.
For a long time at The Oval, it seemed like Cook was grinding for the sake of it. Moeen Ali, apparently on an ‘edge-and-miss’ record hunt, paid tribute to Cook’s career with an unapologetic half-century churned out against some sharp bowling.
It seemed, though, like England were stuck in their shells. Cook, with the weight off his shoulders, went on to make the first half-century by an opener in this series, warding off constant threats from the Indian seamers. At one point of time, the snore-fest reached unfathomable heights that Kohli moved around his fly-slip kind of first slip perhaps just to exercise his brains.
The after-effects of Cook’s retirement would perhaps hit England hard only a few months from now. But if there was an early warning sign, The Oval showcased it pretty vividly. Cook’s departure after 190 balls and 71 runs saw England lose a further two wickets in the space of one run. By the end of the day, they had slipped from 133/2 (at the point of Cook’s dismissal) to 198/7.
Of all the tributes showered on Cook this week, one from Alec Stewart, another from the yonder era, hits home – “he is the heartbeat of the team in such an unassuming way.”
While Cook was nurturing an unwatchable innings, England were sitting pretty, least bothered about the precision of the Indian attack or the right channels they were hitting. Hell, there were people on social media commenting about how Indian seamers weren’t able to find wickets. Few credited Cook for his grind. It seemed unfashionable, unwarranted, even heedless. But with the scoreboard at 198/7 at the end of the day, Cook’s 71 seems worthier than gold.
Had he thrown it away earlier, when Mohammad Shami was in the middle of a scorching spell or when Ishant Sharma was consistently squaring up the left-handers, England might have folded for a 100 or 130. To be clear, Cook wasn’t assured or uber confident. He was plain ugly. In 50-plus scores in his career, Cook has never edged or missed more (courtesy CricViz). But importantly he kept the less technically equipped batsmen away from the line of fire.
If seeing out the new ball is the job of an opener, Cook took it too seriously. He was out there for 64 overs. It took India less than 20 overs to grab five more wickets. It may not show the impact Cook has had. At 198/7 which could turn into 220 all-out, Cook’s 71 might just remain another half-century wasted. But without it, Indian openers might have padded up by tea on day 1. A knock like no other. A grind like no other. Just another day in Alastair Cook’s career. There aren’t many more to come.