By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published on September 10, 2018, in the Western Mirror.
Alastair Cook bucks the trend in an era where the demand for T20 cricket specialists is high. He is a specialist Test cricketer and likely the last of a dying breed.
Last week, Alastair Nathan Cook announced that he would be retiring from Test cricket at the conclusion of the enthralling England-India Test series this week. For the average cricket fan engulfed in the razzmatazz of Twenty20 cricket, Cook would hardly feature on their radar.
For the better part of 12 years, Cook has been a mainstay in the English cricket team, albeit, mostly their Test team. Before his last Test match which begun last Friday, Cook has appeared in 161 Test matches for England, scored over 12,000 Test runs, amassed 33 centuries and 57 half-centuries, at a respectable average of 45.35 runs per dismissal.
Interestingly, of the 161 Test appearances for England, Cook has appeared in 159 consecutive Test matches for England, an accurate indication of his ironman-like mind and body and his dedication to Test cricket. Since his debut on 1 March 2006, no player has played more Test matches than Cook. The next best player in that period – Jimmy Anderson – has played 30 fewer games than Cook.
Without question, Cook has never been among the most gifted players in cricket. In fact, by the subjective standards used to assess some all-time great players, Cook is very limited technically. However, in the record books, only five players have scored more runs in Test cricket than Cook: Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid and Kumar Sangakkara. That’s pretty good company.
On the contrary, Cook’s name will never be mentioned with these greats when cricket aficionados sit to discuss the best batsmen of all-time, though he is England’s all-time Test run scorer. Players of Cook’s ilk, in my eyes, include Allan Border, Graham Gooch, Geoffery Boycott, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Steve Waugh and David Gower. They were all players who were never the most gifted, whose names will never be mentioned among the all-time greats but whom all possessed resilience and steel-like character that made them punch well above their physical talents and abilities. These attributes are the basics required and are most important if one is to be successful in Test cricket without the Brian Lara-like talent and flair.
Since his debut, only four opening batsmen, who have played 40 or more Test matches during the period, have a higher batting average than Cook (44.62) in Test cricket: David Warner (49.02), Graeme Smith (46.72), Virender Sehwag (46.52) and Chris Gayle (46.12).
When asked to summarise his career before his last Test in an interview with former English captain Nasser Hussain, Cook declared, “I can look back and say I became the best player I could have become. That means quite a lot to me. I’ve never been the most talented cricketer, and I don’t pretend I was, but I definitely got everything out of my ability.”
He could not have said it better. In comparison to the talented cricketers mentioned above, Cook would be the last player picked in an all-time XI for several analysts on talent alone. However, his record as a batsman and as a captain is commendable compared with the skills he possessed.
On further examination of Cook’s Test batting career, five of his 30 centuries were double centuries. That’s more double centuries than Zaheer Abbas, Sunil Gavaskar and Viv Richards amassed in their playing careers and one short of Tendulkar’s double century tally of six.
In the shorter formats, Cook’s aforementioned limited abilities were brightly highlighted and resulted in him playing only 92 One-Day Internationals and four Twenty20 Internationals for his country. One slight on his career is that he has never featured in a World Cup for England, having missed out on selection for the 2007, 2011 and 2015 editions.
Cook’s tenure as Test captain was fruitful for England, with the team winning eight of the 17 series while drawing five and losing only four with him at the helm. The two most significant losses under his tenure may be more memorable and lasting on his legacy as captain: the 5-0 defeat to Australia, down under, in 2013-14 and the 4-0 drubbing by India in 2016-17 in the subcontinent.
The Kevin Pietersen affair which developed after the 5-0 mauling by Australia and saw Pietersen banished from the England squad permanently happened under his watch. Just as how Gooch is remembered for dropping the career of Gower, similarly, though maybe unfairly, Cook will always be connected with the three lions shirt being taken away from Pietersen.
“It was the toughest time of my career, and there’s no doubt that it was affected my batting,” Cook told the BBC in an interview with the BBC’s Test Match Special. “The day when [Andrew Strauss] came out and said Kevin wasn’t going to play for us anymore, that was a massive weight off my shoulders.
“I was involved in the decision at first, but the England captain doesn’t have the final say on hiring and firing. I agreed with it, but I said ‘why don’t we give him some time off, we can go away and maybe KP can come back later on’.
“I would refute anyone saying that I was the one that chucked him down the stairs, but I was involved in the decision, and I believed it was right at that time. What could have happened a year later, I don’t know. Looking back, I can safely say all the decisions I made were done for the best of the England cricket team at that time. On that one, there were a lot of other people, way above my head, also involved in it. I felt like I was being left alone as the captain.”
As a captain, he changed the fortunes of England in India, reversing a 28-year curse of series defeats in that sub-continent country. As a batsman, he can be described as a steely Test specialist batsman devoid of artistic skills of his counterparts but filled with mental fortitude, tenacity and an appetite for runs. In this day of T20, he may be the last of a dying breed.
Until next time …
© Zaheer Clarke
Zaheer E. Clarke is a sports columnist, freelance sportswriter and a multi-award-winning blogger. In another life, as a player, he would have been chosen Test cricket over T20 cricket every day of the week but not on Sundays.
This blog article was published in the Western Mirror on September 10, 2018.