Showcasing his class on Indian pitches

Alastair Cook is so good with horizontal bat shots.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Alastair Cook’s mental toughness matches his technical expertise. S. Dinakar takes a look at his batting in the first two Tests.

The sub-continental challenge can be hard for batsmen from the other parts of the world. The ball turns and bounces, close-in fielders surround the willow, and the crowd roars at the slightest folly of the batsmen.

Add to this, the vociferous appeals and the fatigue setting in due to the heat and dust. The survival in the middle can be demanding.

Performances here reflect the batsman’s character. Alastair Cook’s outstanding 374-ball 176 in the second innings of the first Test in Ahmedabad underlined his temperament and resolve. He was cleverly using his technique to surmount the odds in a largely defensive effort which was in sync with the situation that England was in at that time.

Then, Cook’s 270-ball 122 in Mumbai showcased the attacking aspect of his batting. While he was watchful in defence, he also stepped down the track to whip left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha over mid-wicket. The bounce in the Wankhede track helped him too as he cut, pulled and punched his way to become the joint highest scorer of Test hundreds (22) for England.

Cook cuts on his way to a fine hundred at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Cook’s effort in Ahmedabad is up there with the finest innings played by visiting batsmen on Indian soil. The heroic knock might not have saved the Test for England. Yet, it made a statement. Here was a captain with his side under pressure, giving it all for the team.

It would be interesting to dissect Cook’s technique in the sub-continent; particularly during his second innings at the Motera ground. He displayed the mental attributes to play out deliveries, overs, sessions and days.

The 27-year-old batsman has certain inherent advantages being a southpaw. For instance he could afford to play India’s left-arm spinner with the turn. And the fact that Pragyan Ojha lacked a potent armer – such a delivery if angled across the left-hander can be a wicket-taking one – worked to his advantage.

Cook has a slightly open stance but gets into a good side-on position while meeting the ball. He has a back-and across movement but tends to play the medium pacers half-cock when they pitch the ball up or on a good length. This could be a trait he might have developed while playing in England where going fully forward to pacemen on juicy surfaces could be dangerous.

The erudite Cook employed a different technique while facing Ojha and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. He went fully forward, unless the length demanded otherwise, in defence while most of his scoring shots came off the back-foot.

Sweep, if properly executed, is an effective ploy against spin and Cook does that well, especially in sub-continental pitches.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

In other words, Cook made use of the depth of the crease. It was a defensive innings for most part but the England captain did get the bowlers to alter their length. Considering Cook was so adept at employing the cut shot – deliveries that were not quite short in length but gave him slight width outside off were put away – Ashwin switched to round-the-wicket to cramp the batsman. It was an intriguing duel between a southpaw and an off-spinner.

Cook, then, essayed the cover-drive off the front-foot past the ropes and then, when Ashwin consequently shortened his length, cut the delivery to the fence. This was clever batting.

The feature of his batting was how quickly he managed to pick the length. This enabled him to get on to his back-foot at will. When a batsman is competent off both backfoot and frontfoot, then it is tough on the bowler to get him.

There is no denying Cook is a bottom handed player. The fact that his back-leg bends when he drives the ball is a give-away. This is also the reason he is so good with horizontal bat shots.

Noted cricketing coach Vasu Paranjpe said, “He was rarely in doubt whether to play forward or back. He was decisive and it also indicates that he was reading the length of the ball capably. He is bottom handed but this does not affect his batting.”

Off-spin bowling great Erapalli Prasanna said, “It becomes hard for the bowler when the batsman does not give the bowler the full view of the target (the stumps). Cook did that and made it hard for the bowler to find the right line.”

Cook nicely adapts himself to the situation. Here the England captain shows his belligerent mood.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Of course, there were long periods of defence in Cook’s innings. The break-up of his 176 makes for fascinating reading. There were as many as 271 dot balls in Cook’s innings. He often kept the ball down with soft hands.

His innings in Ahmedabad comprised 74 singles, six twos, two threes, and 21 boundaries. Twenty-six of his runs came through point, 37 through covers, 40 past mid-wicket and 34 beyond square-leg. Only three runs came between mid-on and mid-off.

It is clear that he hardly made any runs showing the full face of the willow. Cook comprehended his areas of strength and stuck to them. He also played on the patience of the bowlers, waiting for them to err in length. The English skipper showed the patience to succeed in these conditions.

Contrast this with the jumping-down-the-track on-driven six over long-on off Ojha in Mumbai and you realise here is a batsman who has his finger on the pulse of the game; different situations demand different tactics.

The left-hander has also played the sweep to disrupt the line of the spinners. Sweep, if properly executed, is an effective ploy against spin. And some of the immensely successful batsmen in India such as Matthew Hayden have employed this shot capably.

Former India opener Aunshuman Gaekwad believed Cook did not come with a negative mind-set to India. “He is not someone who loses it in the mind before coming here. He is someone who knows his limitations and makes the most of his ability. He has such a calm presence at the crease.”

His technique is not flawless. There was a phase in his career when he ran into difficulties with his trigger movement. He had a tendency to ‘fall over’ and as a result was a candidate for a caught behind or a leg-before verdict. Cook has subsequently worked on his batting. He now has a slight trigger movement forward but rarely commits himself to the front foot. Depending on the length, he is now able to shift weight to his back-leg in a jiffy.

And India is the land of destiny from him. It was here in 2007 that he received an SOS from the England team while on a tour with the ‘A’ side in the Caribbean. Cook cashed in on his Test debut in Nagpur with innings of 60 and 104 not out.

Creditably, Cook has (before the Mumbai Test) 1135 runs in India from 13 Tests at 54.04. This is just below his overall outstanding away average of 56.98 (3248 runs from 35 matches).

Perhaps, the Indian spinners should — on a more consistent basis — invite Cook for the front-foot drive outside off and consume him with the turn. Ashwin did that in the England first innings at Motera and then at the Wankhede Stadium. But Cook had already progressed past his century by then in Mumbai.

He is indeed a thinking batsman with a calm mind. Cook’s mental toughness matches his technical expertise.