Cooking the opposition’s goose

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Alastair Cook may not provide the aesthetic delight that is so often associated with left-handed batsmen, but if it is runs in the bank and long tenures at the crease that you are looking for, then the opener from Essex is your man, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

A solid opening batsman is perhaps the most reassuring sight in cricket. Remember Sunil Gavaskar’s stride to the crease and the sense of well-being his walk gave the Indian fans in the 1970s and 80s?

It may be cliched to say ‘well begun is half done’, but it is a truism that all teams seek from their openers, and in this regard, England has been well served by its captain and sheet anchor, Alastair Cook.

Cook may not provide the aesthetic delight that is so often associated with left-handed batsmen, but if it is runs in the bank and long tenures at the crease that you are looking for, then the opener from Essex is your man.

At 28, Cook’s Test statistics are staggering: 92 matches, 7,524 runs, 49.17 average and 25 hundreds. Add to it dollops of patience as evident in the number of deliveries that he has faced: 15,824, and you get a player who has carried forward the legacy of Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch, men who were not effervescent by any stretch of imagination, but yet were mightily effective in many a cricketing joust for England.

Besides the references to past masters from England, the prolific veneer that coats Cook’s bat has meant that he is now inevitably drawn into comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar. The primary question revolves around whether he might scale Tendulkar’s Test peak of 15,837 runs (and still counting). The trigger was obviously Cook’s gallop to the 7,000-run mark, as he was the youngest to get there at 27.

Right from that moment, at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens last December, statisticians have sighed and looked into the horizon and wondered: will he? The remaining part of that query about Cook going past Tendulkar is largely unsaid.

This exercise in caution basically springs from the awareness that many men of supreme batting pedigree have trailed Tendulkar and hung up their boots. Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Brian Lara and Inzamam-ul-Haq have all had their phases before winding up their careers while Jacques Kallis (13,128) continues to turn out for South Africa, though he too is nearing his twilight zone.

Cook’s biggest ally right now is his age and the watertight approach he shows with the willow while burying rival squads beneath an avalanche of runs. His mentor and England’s batting coach Gooch had earlier hinted that the Tendulkar benchmark could be scaled if Cook maintains his poise and consistency. “He is well balanced and I would like to think he could do that (going past Tendulkar), but we don’t know. I have always said that the best years for a batsman are (from) 27 to 35. Alastair has all the best years in front of him. Over the last six years or so, he has worked lots on his game, his technique, his knowledge and I think what you see now is a product of all the hard work that he has put in to shape that game,” Gooch said.

Many men were propped up before as potential rivals to Tendulkar’s crown. Steve Waugh had spoken about Ponting, Imran Khan had hyped Inzamam and Gooch’s statement about Cook fits into that pattern though there is no denying the sheer talent that course through all these men.

While Mount Tendulkar is a distant summit, England will draw more cheer from Cook’s recent sustained good showing with the bat, as evident in the runs against New Zealand. The Champions Trophy interlude is upon England, but largely its media space is taken up by that obsession with the ‘Holy Grail’: The Ashes.

The historical face-off will commence in Nottingham on July 10 and Cook will get another chance to tuck into his favourite bowling attack. (He has scored 1,264 runs at an average of 50.56 against the old enemy.) But he needs to do a statistical correction too because in Ashes contests in England, Cook has scored only 222 runs with an average of 24.66. Considering his form, an upward revision of those numbers looks a mere formality.

Cook the batsman and Cook the captain have complemented each other and most importantly, he has the respect of his peers. Even the temperamental Kevin Pietersen has profusely praised his skipper. With Pietersen letting go of his past grudges, falling in line, and hopefully getting fit in time for the Ashes, Cook has no rumbles to ponder over in the dressing room, while his counterpart Michael Clarke still has to massage Shane Watson’s dented ego.

It is a fine sub-text to nurse for England while the mind games commence in right earnest and endless debates ensue in pubs in London and in Sydney.

In the coming months and years, Cook will ideally have the maximum impact on England’s fortunes and that is saying a lot because his batting colleagues include Pietersen and Jonathan Trott. Like the Tendulkars and the Dravids, Cook will surely have the odd barren stage while the dreaded ‘law of averages’ bites into his repertoire, but like the two greats, he has the requisite cerebral powers to tide over those tough times.

He has sorted out his earlier predicament of playing around his front-foot and becoming a prime candidate for lbw dismissal. The added fact that captaincy, a hurdle which usually derails a batsman, has had no negative effect on Cook’s scoring is proof that he is able to compartmentalise his varied roles and do justice to all.

It is a long road ahead for Cook but he has the necessary attributes to last the distance. Statisticians and cricket historians meanwhile will gape at Tendulkar’s runs and mumble: “Will Cook…?”