India vs England: Alastair Cook - 22 and counting
Alastair Cook was only 21 when he played his first Test for England in 2006. His first assignment was against a team that was considered unbeatable at home. Playing his first innings at Nagpur, Cook was done in by a peach of a delivery from Irfan Pathan. However, he had already shown what England could expect from him in the future with his knock of 60 runs. By the time the Test ended, columns were already being written about him, heaping praises on his temperament and technique. Following his fifty in the first innings, Cooky bettered it by registering an unbeaten innings of 104 – a hundred on debut.
Fast forward to 2012 and Alastair Cook returned to India as a veteran of 83 Tests and in charge of his team – his first full tour as a captain. Although he played in two Tests in 2008, the series is remembered more for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks that led to the first two Tests at Delhi and Guwahati being cancelled.
Labelled as a purported revenge series by the media, Cook knew that the India tour will be a tough task. The Indian team had lost 0-4 on English soil to a side led by Andrew Strauss in 2011 when they were the reigning No 1 Test team. To prosper in favourable environment is one thing while performing in alien and testing conditions is another.
So, a tour of a country where England haven’t won a Test series for almost three decades, in conjunction with other factors (Pietersen’s reintegration), was always going to be a challenge.
Eight wickets fell to spinners in England’s first innings after India won the toss and posted 521 in the first Test. Barring Alastair Cook and Matt Prior, none of the visiting batsmen displayed any intent of staying on the crease. The likes of Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell failed in both the innings as the team was bundled out for 191.
In their second dig, a similar story to first innings was unfolding until Cook and Prior showed what is needed to excel on the subcontinent tracks.
It took Pragyan Ojha – the most successful bowler in the match - to find a crack through Cook’s defence with a delivery that stayed low before hitting the stumps. His stay on the crease lasted for just over nine hours during which he took the contest to the final day and raised an unlikely hope of saving, if not winning, a match that was predicted to be over by the fourth day. His resilience and stubbornness ensured that England didn’t have to face the ignominy of suffering an innings defeat. However, it would be unfair to remember his knock of 176 only in this context.
And in the second Test, the smirk on his face was a clear indication of his feelings after losing the toss. However, from then on it was his resolve aided by the brilliance of Kevin Pietersen that saw them trap India in their own web of spin. His 22nd Test hundred wasn’t scored in a flamboyant manner as Pietersen’s but its importance, no doubt, will be measured in equal terms.
Unlike the current crop of batsmen who are capable of making a Test appear as an extended limited overs game, scoring runs at a brisk pace, Cook’s batting gives you a whiff of old school. Waiting, waiting and waiting but not missing out on scoring opportunities is what has made this Gloucester born southpaw climb one rung after another successfully. He might not have the swagger of KP or the exquisite timing of Bell but what he has in plenty is the patience of a monk. Using his resources intelligently and not losing his head even when the entire team is crumbling made him go through what would become one of his most memorable knocks.
It is his patience that forces bowlers to commit errors making them bowl in his areas. Without dropping a sweat he crafts marathon innings while making sure that his technical shortcomings do not get the better of him. He is also a fast learner. After falling to R Ashwin in the first innings, he made adjustments and began dealing with the similar deliveries (off break) from the tweaker more effectively in the second essay.
If you are an English cricketer and haven’t performed in the Ashes, greatness is still at a distance. Although Cook had proved his credentials to be counted among the greats time and again, after spending eight years in international cricket, the boy wonder still faced questions over his failure against their biggest rivals – Australia. In other words, he was still to bask in Ashes glory on account of personal achievements. So, he went on to clear any iota of doubt that a cynic fan would be harbouring by scoring profusely (766 runs) in 2011 Ashes series.
As umpire Aleem Dar took the bails off on the penultimate day of the first Test between India and England in Ahmedabad, smiles must have returned on the faces of the English camp. A contest that was increasingly turning one-sided was given some life, courtesy a monumental knock from a certain Chef.
As with Australian captain Michael Clarke, captaincy seems to bring the best out of Cook as well. In his first three Tests as captain, he has scored three tons. It is too early to judge him as a skipper but there should be no doubt regarding his place among the best Test batsmen.