On the last day of the final match of the just-concluded Test series between India and England at Kensington Oval, one of the commentators covering the game for ESPN Cricinfo website observed that Alastair Cook had donned the helmet and moved to the forward short leg even as KL Rahul was indulging in some big hitting. This move amused the commentator who observed wryly that this was probably the first time that a senior player was standing in that position and that too in his retirement game.
The statistician nearby noted that this was probably the first time that a player was standing at forward short leg in both his first and last matches! The point that the commentators missed was that this gesture was typical of Cook and only showed what a great team man and selfless individual he was.
Earlier, Cook had cleared another milestone as one of the few players to hit a century in his first as well as last Test match. While the applause that greeted the achievement of the landmark was only to be expected, what surprised many was the silence that gripped the otherwise noisy crowd, when he neared the three-figure mark. It appeared as if the whole of England wanted him to sign off in a blaze of glory and the silence was the manifestation of the tension that gripped the spectators when he inched towards the coveted figure. The fact that he had a poor series behind him might also have worried his fans but on this day he finally sorted out the difficulties that had plagued him against the Indian pacemen and left the field with his held high.
How could this reticent, introverted, quiet individual have won such a huge fan following amongst cricket lovers the world over? His batting style was not the type that would set the Thames on fire. There were no flashy strokes nor any shots square of the wicket; neither were there any breathtakingly delicate caressing of the ball played very late. He was without doubt a stylish batsman, who was blessed with all the natural elegance of a leftie. He could pull the short pitched ball with savage power and feasted on loose deliveries. His batting was founded on sound technique and never was he rattled by pace bowlers. His forte was his steely and, often, stubborn self-belief, which helped him overcome all hurdles posed by the bowlers and match conditions.
However, what set Cook apart from his contemporaries was his insatiable appetite for runs, which made him the highest run scoring left-handed batsman in Test cricket. Before one takes a potshot at the use of the phrase 'left-handed', readers should recall that some of the most prolific run-getters in international cricket during the last three decades have been left-handers - Brian Lara, Kumar Sangakkara, Allan Border and Sourav Ganguly, to name a few. But Cook surpassed them all in terms of number of runs scored in Test cricket, by virtue of his dogged determination to stay at the wicket and score more runs. He ends up as the fifth highest run scorer in Test cricket, behind Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid. At one point he was in serious contention to overtake Tendulkar’s aggregate, but the dip in form that dried up runs during the last two seasons put paid to any such hopes that his supporters would have entertained.
As stated earlier, Cook was not a flamboyant batsman; he believed in the old-fashioned approach of working one’s runs through singles and twos and throwing the bowler off balance by rotating the strike. One interesting piece of statistics that emerged during the time of his retirement was that he is the only batsman who figures twice in the list of 10 longest innings! His innings at Abu Dhabi against Pakistan when he spent 836 minutes to score 263 and against India at Birmingham in 2011 where he compiled 294 runs in 773 minutes are examples of his monumental patience and extraordinary temperament. He was also a great one for long partnerships as could be seen from the fact that while his tally of runs in Test cricket was 12,472, batsmen at the other end scored 13,327. Thus the total runs scored by England when Cook was at the crease would come to 25,799, which is almost 30 per cent of the total runs made for that country in the 161 Test matches that he played! This would indicate how vital Cook’s presence and contribution were to his country during the 12 years that he played Test cricket.
Another unique feature of Cook was his ability to perform well in Asia, both in Indian subcontinent as well as in the cricket stadia in UAE. He made his debut in Test cricket in India and took such a liking for the conditions prevailing in Asia that he scored 2,710 runs from the 28 Tests that he played here. The next highest tally is by Kallis who could make only 2,058 runs. For players, in particular batsmen, who are brought up on the pitches in England and Australia, performing well in Asian conditions presents the biggest challenge. However, these difficulties only succeeded in bringing the best out of Cook and he mastered the art of running up high scores consistently on Asian pitches. Another interesting facet of Cook was that despite being an opening batsman, he earned a well-deserved reputation for tackling spin bowlers effectively.
Cook led England in a record 59 Tests, winning 24 and losing 22. Though this makes him the second-most successful captain in terms of the matches won, the fact that it was during his leadership that side lost the largest number of Tests takes away a bit of the sheen from his achievements on this score. He started off on the right foot as skipper, winning a Test series in India in 2012, which was the first time England could achieve this task since 1985. Though they won the Ashes series at home in 2013, England was thrashed 1-4 when they toured Australia that winter. Victories at home against India in 2014 and in the Ashes series of 2015 brightened things a bit but things went downhill after that. A 0-4 loss against India in 2016 was the final nail and Cook announced his decision to step down from captaincy couple of months after this series.
A remarkable record that Cook holds is the 159 Tests that he played on the trot, which is a tribute to his commitment as well as the high level of fitness that he maintained. The fact that he was dropped from the limited-overs’ squad in 2015 proved to be a blessing in disguise as he could focus on the longer duration format of the game in his twilight years in international cricket. He was also an exceptionally good fielder in the slip cordon, as could be seen from the 175 catches that he has held, most of them being pouched while standing in this position.
Cook vs Gavaskar
One aspect that struck my mind while penning the article was the remarkable similarity of Cook’s career with that of a Indian legend of the yore. Though the high turnout at the Oval on the day he scored his last century showed his popularity amongst the fans of the game in England, he cannot be considered in the same class as the 'fab four' of Indian batting, in terms of the impact he made on the field and outside it. However I found an uncanny resemblance in the careers of Cook and Sunil Gavaskar. Both were grim accumulators of runs, scaled many batting milestones and revelled in playing under difficult conditions overseas. They both started their careers in international cricket when the fortunes of their respective sides were at a low ebb and contributed substantially to improving it. As captains they had mixed records and both of them decided to step down from the pedestal voluntarily. If Gavaskar had a running feud with Kapil Dev during his days at the helm, Cook was bogged down by issues with Kevin Pietersen. Neither of them was at ease in the world of limited-overs’ cricket but adjusted their technique to achieve optimum success in this format. Finally, despite their achievements, they were not universally popular, even within their teams' dressing rooms.
Cook’s success in international cricket is yet another example of the heights that a person can reach by dint of sheer hard work, diligence and determination to succeed. He also showed that it is possible to be admired and even loved by spectators without being flamboyant or possessing prodigious talent. A worthy role model to emulate, his retirement would leave a huge void in the England line-up. At this juncture, as he bids adieu to international cricket, it is time for lovers of the game to doff their hats and say in one voice “Well played Cook!”.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)
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