England's batting bulwarks

A few years back it would have been impossible to write anything on English batting without referring to Kevin Pietersen, but Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook have changed perceptions, lent solidity and added another dimension, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

There was no mistaking England's aura at the annual International Cricket Council Awards function at London's Grosvenor House Hotel on September 12. On a day when India failed to turn up citing a delayed invitation, hope and optimism surged high with the crowning of two men, who are expected to take the batting flame forward from the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis.

Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook won the ‘ICC Player of the Year' and ‘ICC Test player of the Year' awards respectively. The honour was a just reflection of the sheer volume of runs they scored over the last one year, and it was also a recognition of the pivotal roles the two have played in the emergence of England as a cricketing power.

Geoff Boycott's obduracy, Graham Gooch's imposing stature and David Gower's languid ease are all traits that can be inspiring as well as stifling for any new batsman wearing the England colours, as he has to cope with unfair comparisons. Trott and Cook, in their own unique ways, have tided past all that. They have also quelled that queasy feeling which the English fans had about promising players failing to survive at the highest level thanks to memories about Chris Broad, Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash. Cook has lasted 72 Tests (5868 runs), Trott has played 23 (1965 runs) and their signs of longevity are very clear.

Trott, who is the first England cricketer to win the Sir Garfield Sobers ‘Player of the Year' citation in the seven-year history of the ICC's awards function, was understandably at a loss for words. He said: “I was quite determinated to do well.” Immediately Graeme Swann, always ready for a good laugh, was in splits. The England off-spinner repeated the word ‘determinated' and Trott quipped from the stage, “Ah I do let the lads have some fun.”

The middle-order batsman's humour was a contrast to his serious demeanour at the crease. Perhaps it is a South African trait he imbibed during his formative years in Cape Town while watching men like Gary Kirsten. If cricket at its basic level is about runs and wickets then surely Trott has scored an incredible amount, especially in the period under consideration for the award.

In the 12 Tests and 24 ODIs that came under scrutiny, Trott totted up 1042 and 1064 runs respectively, the highlight being the defining hundreds during England's 3-1 Ashes triumph — 135 n.o. in Brisbane and 168 n.o. in Melbourne. There is a certain calm he exudes at the crease, a trait that is so similiar to what Rahul Dravid brings to the table. Even in the recent NatWest Series against India, Trott seemed relaxed and strong enough to strike the runs.

And just like Dravid did in his early years, Trott too is fighting against the image of being a slow scorer that critics and former cricketers have bestowed upon him in ODIs though his strike-rate of 78.35 indicates that he is no tortoise. May be that image influenced Cook's decision to drop Trott from the playing XI during the rain-marred game at Southampton's Rose Bowl. The match was shortened to 23 overs per side and out went Trott as the team-management perceived that only one among the two accumulators (Cook and Trott) could play.

Cook had to play because he was the captain though later he admitted to having thoughts of dropping himself. Like Trott, who had to prove his English credentials because of his South African roots, Cook had his own set of problems to contend with. He was marked out as special when in one of his early Ashes trysts, Glenn McGrath anointed him as the target. A voracious appetite for runs was initially appeased until his tendency to fall over his front foot left Cook red-faced. References like ‘an off-stump fiddler' did the rounds but as coach Andy Flower said, ‘Cook is a damn tough player.'

The southpaw worked in tandem with batting coach Graham Gooch and minimised the chinks. Strong off his legs and with an approach that is reminiscent of Allan Border, Cook may not be the classical left-hander drawing the ‘ oohs' and ‘aahs' with exquisite shots like a Gower, a Brian Lara or a Sourav Ganguly, but he stays at the wicket and scores plenty.

An Ashes high of 766 runs at an average of 127.66 helped England win 3-1 and that along with the 294 against India in Birmingham recently ensured that Cook went past all other contenders for the ‘Test player of the Year' award. “There is no limit to improving myself as a batsman. Gooch has told us — the batting unit — that we need to make our centuries count. He told us to think that our job is not over once we score a century, it is about carrying on. His mantra of ‘you have never got enough' has really rubbed off on our batting group,” Cook said.

Cook has added lustre to Gooch's ‘score-a-daddy-hundred' demand and his unbeaten 235 against Australia in Brisbane set the base for England's much-awaited Ashes victory away from home since 1986-87. In the performance period from August 11, 2010 to August 3, 2011, Cook scored 1302 runs from 12 Tests and averaged 76.58 with six hundreds and four fifties enhancing his value.

The opener is now keen to prove that he can do well in limited overs cricket too. Named England's ODI captain amidst reservations with former skipper Michael Atherton calling him a ‘plodder,' Cook has proved that he can do well in the abridged versions too. In the NatWest Series against India, Cook scored 169 runs at a fair-clip of 74.41 and was only behind Ravi Bopara (197). Cook though has been overlooked in England's Twenty20 squad and he has admitted to being disappointed.

A few years back it would have been impossible to write anything on English batting without referring to Kevin Pietersen, but Trott and Cook have changed perceptions, lent solidity and added another dimension. The duo along with Test captain Andrew Strauss, Pietersen and Ian Bell form a formidable phalanx of willow wielders, who will stand England in good stead while it braces hard to stay at the number one slot in the longer version. “Once you are number one, people just want to shake you up and knock you down. It is natural and we are prepared for those contests,” Cook said.