Excelling in the Role of a bulwark

England has not won a Test series in India for 27 years, but the new captain, Alastair Cook, seems determined to change his team’s fortunes this time. By G. Viswanath.

Alastair Cook is firmly in the saddle as a distinguished England opener. Ever since he walked in to bat as a rookie with Andrew Strauss against India in Nagpur in 2006 and stringed together a half century and a century, Cook has faced very many practitioners of fast bowling with a high degree of skill and equanimity and has provided stability to the England top order.

On his third visit to India — this time as captain — Cook showed his typical trait in a little over six hours in his first tour match against India ‘A’. He cut and carved his way to a century at the Brabourne Stadium. In the process, the England captain raised speculations about the ways and means he would adopt for the rest of the tour in order to achieve success in the four-Test series.

It’s not that the assorted India ‘A’ seamers of some variety and spinners in operation were trying to hit peak form against a few batsmen possessing considerable wherewithal and experience; they were far from intimidating in terms of making the ball rise from good areas or revealing their guile to beat the batsmen in the air and off the wicket.

Overall, it was commonplace stuff, yet the England captain applied himself to the task and performed the role of a bulwark. Cook has realised that the onus is on him to show the way in his first tour as captain in the post Strauss era.

Up until a few months ago, Cook and Strauss (also a left-hander) were enormous pillars of strength, their opening partnership getting off the ground at Nagpur’s new stadium at Jamtha. England then needed an able replacement for Marcus Trescothick and Cook filled the bill. It would not be inappropriate to compare Cook and Strauss with England’s legends, Sir Jack Hobbs of Sussex and his opening partner Herbert Sutcliffe of Yorkshire. The Hobbs-Sutcliffe opening partnership delivered 3249 runs in 25 Tests at 87.81. It even improved to 1720 at 95.56 in England’s winning campaigns.

Cook and Strauss joined forces to surpass Hobbs and Sutcliffe’s record, posting 4711 runs in 68 Tests at 40.97. Their opening partnership is only behind Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes (6482 runs in 89 Tests at 47.31) and Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer (5655 runs in 64 Tests at 51.88). More importantly, Cook and Strauss largely contributed to England’s Ashes triumphs in 2009 and 2011, with Cook making 766 runs in the 2010-11 series with an unbeaten 235 as his highest score.

Early this year, when most of his colleagues fell to the finger spinners, Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, in the three-Test series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, Cook managed to save his reputation with a 94 in the second Test and 49 in the third.

England’s success in the Ashes, with Strauss and Cook in the vanguard, has put into perspective the duo’s mighty contributions. The retirement of Strauss straightaway put the focus on Cook and he has — with the guidance of team director Andy Flower and batting coach Graham Gooch — expressed his desire to change England’s fortunes in India. England has not won a series in India for 27 years, a point he stressed upon at a press conference.

Cook has played in 83 Tests, scored 6555 runs with 20 centuries (HS: 294) and 29 half centuries for an average of 47.85. He has also held 73 catches. These are numbers that are close to being regarded as phenomenal, and it is Cook’s sheer ability to perform overseas that has earned him the tag of a world-class batsman. In 36 away Tests, he has scored 3147 runs at 51.59 with 10 centuries. He is the sort of batsman who will grit his teeth and grind the opposition into the dust. Cook may not be always pleasing to watch, but nonetheless, he is effective.

England is happy that Cook put mind over matter in the first match of the current tour. He showed the virtues of a left-hander, working the ball off his pads and hips, driving firmly and executing the odd fiery cuts and pulls. As he himself said, Cook learnt his trade as an opener from Gooch and Flower, who spent five summers at Chelmsford (from 2002 to 2006) and at a time when the England captain cut his teeth in county cricket.

Cook is now the fourth highest scorer among England left-handers and it will not be long before he goes past David Gower (8231 runs in 117 Tests), Strauss (7037 runs in 100 Tests) and Graham Thorpe (6744 runs in 100 Tests).

Cook is also the 13th highest run getter for England after Gooch, Alec Stewart, Gower, Geoff Boycott, Michael Atherton, Colin Cowdrey, Wally Hammond, Kevin Pietersen, Strauss, Len Hutton, Ken Barrington and Thorpe.

Besides teaming up successfully with Strauss, Cook has also struck it rich with Jonathan Trott for the second wicket (1381 runs in 19 Tests at 69.05) and with Kevin Pietersen for the third (2544 runs in 35 Tests at 63.60). All these facts and figures highlight the importance of Cook in the England ranks.