England have closed Day 4 of the First Test of their series in India ahead by 10 runs, having followed on, thanks to 168 not out from Alastair Cook, ably supported by Matthew Prior (84 not out). England’s frailty against spin on a low, slow, turning wicket were exposed again in the first innings, and even in the second, when Ojha claimed Trott and Pietersen, so crucial to England’s gameplan, for fewer than 20 together. How is it then, that Alastair Cook is able to succeed so comfortably, where others struggle so painfully? I don’t want to oversell his innings today, as the Indian bowling became fairly placid at times, but it is by no means the first time Cook has plundered the spinners. The secret, as so often, is in the footwork.
Cook’s strength against spin is due to his trigger movement, and his light-footed nature at the crease, but it was not always thus. After his initial honeymoon period in international cricket, which of course started in India, bowlers worked out that he planted his front foot across middle and off stump, and was a prime candidate for LBW. He had a low patch, before moving his first stride straighter, to avoid such a problem, and stopped trying to sweep the spinners pre-emptively, which caused the same LBW problems.
Spin however, is a different matter. The reason Cook is so good is the same reason that Chanderpaul is so good against spin; they both play it in the same way. Their trigger movement is a small half-step forward onto the ball of the front foot. This allows, when the batsman reads the length, either to redouble his forward stride into a full one, or rock back and play the ball off the back foot, both with relative ease. For starters, this gives a batsman far more time at the crease, as we see with Cook. However, the major bonus is in the defensive strokes. By already having taken a half-step forward, in order to play a proper, to-the-pitch, forward defensive stroke, Cook has less distance to travel in the same period of time, which means that when he makes contact with the ball, his bat is far less likely to be moving fast, or even at all, when he makes contact. This allows him to “dead-bat” the ball, and reduces the chances of being caught at silly point or short leg considerably.
Alongside this technique, Cook has naturally soft hands, which in laymen’s terms means he doesn’t grip the bat too hard (see Owais Shah for the total opposite), and the ball is less likely to carry to close fielders off the edge. These are techniques which Cook has worked on with Andy Flower, one of the greatest players of spin in his day, both in the England set-up, and presumably when they played together at Essex, and it is once again coming to fruition, as Cook scores runs where others can’t.
Alastair Cook seems to have taken to captaincy like a duck to water, and it certainly has mollified his thirst for runs. Should he save the Test match for England tomorrow, we could see England make an attempt on their first series victory in India since David Gower’s side. However, his team-mates will need to learn some serious lessons from his efforts over the last two days.