If one were to say that opening the batting was the hardest job in cricket, there would be few who would disagree. An opener has to face the ball at its most volatile, the pitch at its spiciest, and the bowling at its most aggressive. There is every chance that a ball will come down that is simply unplayable, a ball which nobody on earth would keep from dismantling your wicket. The role requires impeccable technique, flawless judgment and mental fortitude to rival the finest of chess’s grand masters.
One man has epitomised those qualities for England over 12 years with crabby cover drives, flashing cuts and stodgy clips to leg. His name is Alastair Cook, and at the age of 33, he will leave the England setup after the final test against India as one of his country’s greats.
Cook is, by 3654 runs at the time of writing, England’s top test run scorer. He has scored more centuries than any other Englishman and only Wally Hammond has scored more double centuries. He has played 160 matches, 159 of those consecutively, walked to the middle 289 times, returned undefeated 16 times, and scored 12,254 runs at an average of 44.88. For an opening batsman in English conditions, his statistics are simply astounding.
Cook made his test debut in 2006 at Nagpur. Summoned from an England Academy tour in the West Indies to replace the injured Marcus Trescothick at the top of the order, Cook scored 60 and 104, making him the sixteenth Englishman to score a century on their test debut. Having been briefly shuffled to three upon the return of Trescothick, he again resumed his opening partnership with Andrew Strauss for the disastrous 2006-07 Ashes tour, in which he averaged a measly 26.He continued to perform consistently for the next few years in an inconsistent England side very much in transition from the greats of the 2005 Ashes to those of the early 2010s.
Made vice-captain under the new regime of Andrew Strauss in 2009, his top score in that year’s Ashes was 95 in an uncharacteristically meagre series for the opener. The following year saw his first taste of captaincy when Strauss was rested for the tour of Bangladesh. There, he flourished, scoring centuries in both matches. Back in England, however, life was not so easy. A run of bad form against Bangladesh and Pakistan saw his technique questioned and, despite the recent protestations from then coach Andy Flower, his place for that winter’s tour in Australia in doubt. Never one to go down without a fight, Cook saved his place, at least in the popular view, with an innings of 110 against Pakistan at the Oval in a low scoring England defeat.
If the innings at the Oval was what saved Cook’s test place, then it was probably the most important innings of his career. The Ashes tour of 2010-11 was the peak of Cook’s England career. He scored a mammoth 766 runs at an average of 127.66, including a double century in the first test in a 329 run stand with Jonathan Trott which saved England from a near certain defeat. He would go on to score a further two hundreds in England’s first away Ashes victory in almost 30 years. It was a truly heroic performance from Cook, who proved a nightmare for an inconsistent Australian attack to bowl to.
The key to Cook’s success throughout his career is his willingness to wait for the bowlers to bowl to him. If a bowler were to hypothetically bowl a good length outside off all day, Cook has the mental fortitude to leave every single one, but as soon as the bowler strays in either line or length, he has the skill to dispatch the ball to the boundary, typically via a fierce cut through point or a delicate legside clip. In the Ashes of 2010-11, the Australian bowling line-up was far from its best, with metronome Ryan Harris injured and future terroriser of English batting units Mitchell Johnson’s inconsistencies put to a famous, if profane, song by the Barmy Army. This all fed into Cook’s natural game, with plenty of easy pickings to keep his score ticking over.
Following a mediocre World Cup after the Ashes in 2011, Cook took over Andrew Strauss’s ODI captaincy, despite having not featured in the white ball game since the previous winter’s tour to Bangladesh. This would be a decision which would come back to haunt Cook and the ECB, but for now his impeccable form continued into the home summer, scoring two tons in two games against Sri Lanka, and taking the player of the series award in the subsequent ODI series. His form dipped in the first two games against India, a series which was effectively a playoff for the number 1 spot in the test rankings, but an incredible 294 in the third test at Edgbaston saw England well on the way to victory in that game and the series, sending England to the top of world cricket, a long-term goal of captain Strauss.
Having peaked in 2011, the England side, as is inevitable for every dominant side, began to slowly decline. This came to a head at home to South Africa in the summer of 2012, a series defeat which saw Kevin Pietersen dropped following comments made about Strauss to the South African players. Strauss subsequently called time on his career, and as was expected, Cook was made England Test captain. His reign started off with a bang, leading England to their first series win in India since 1985, in which, by scoring hundreds in the first three tests, he became the first test captain to score five hundreds in their first five tests if his previous two tests in charge against Bangladesh were included.
The following summer saw Cook lead his one-day side to the final of the Champions Trophy at home in England, in which they were defeated by India. Following a 2-0 series win against New Zealand, Cook failed to score a hundred in the first leg of that year’s back-to-back Ashes series at home, in which England prevailed 3-0. The return series, however, was apocalyptic, with England falling to a 5-0 series whitewash in which Cook once again failed to ton up. Following the crushing defeat at the hands of a ferocious Mitchell Johnson, coach Andy Flower was discarded by the ECB, but Cook remained as captain despite the bloodlust of the media pundits.
His struggles continued in the summer of 2014 as the side fell to a 1-0 series defeat at home to Sri Lanka, before a five-test series against India in which Cook took his first, and to date only, test wicket, that of Ishant Sharma in the tediously drawn first test at Trent Bridge. His form looked to be improving, with scores of 95 and 70 in the third test, the former of which was met with adulation from the English supporters, whose support for their out of form captain was gratifying to see in such a time of social media scrutiny. England would go on to win the series 3-1, but fell to a 3-1 series defeat in the ODI series that followed. Cook’s careful, deliberate batting seemed out of place in the modern age of high ODI run rates, and this, combined with his seeming lack of tactical nous in the shorter format of the game, meant that the 5-2 ODI series defeat away to Sri Lanka in the lead up to the 2015 World Cup would be his last in white ball cricket. Most agreed that this was the right thing both for the ODI team and for Cook’s test career. The necessity to dominate length deliveries outside the off stump in one day cricket was hampering his ability to leave those same deliveries in the longer format, which ruined his trademark style of waiting for the bowlers to bowl to him instead of seeking to chase the ball in order to score runs.
The next winter saw England draw a two-test series in the West Indies, before a similarly drawn series at home to New Zealand, in which Cook scored his 27th test century at Lord’s in the first test and became England’s all-time leading run scorer in the second. In the Ashes series which followed, Cook again led England to a victory, this time by a margin of 3-2. His form would continue into the series against Pakistan, making his third test double century in Abu Dhabi. Bad light foisted the teams attempts to chase a makeable total on the final day, and they would eventually sink to a 2-0 series defeat. He failed to pass 50 in the next series in South Africa, but England left the southern hemisphere 2-1 victors.
2016 saw Cook pass 10,000 test runs against Sri Lanka, the youngest batsman and the first Englishman to do so, in the second test of a 2-0 series win. He also broke Sunil Gavaskar’s record for the most test runs scored as an opener in the series which followed, a 2-2 series draw at home to Pakistan. The next winter would prove to be his last as captain. Cook led his side to the subcontinent, drawing 1-1 in a series against Bangladesh on pitches which turned more than a door handle, before a 4-0 defeat at the hands of India, in which Cook would score 130 in the second innings of the drawn first test. In January of the next year, Cook stood down as England captain to be replaced by Joe Root, having led his country in a record 59 matches.
Relieved of the burden of captaincy, Cook was consistent in the home series against South Africa the following summer, scoring three half centuries in a 3-1 win. He then scored 243 in the first test against the West Indies, an innings which epitomised his playing style, with a wayward bowling effort from the visitors put to the sword in a series which finished 2-1. That winter, in amongst the ruins of another away Ashes defeat, Cook would ensure that it would not be a whitewash as he carried his bat for 244* in the Boxing Day test in Melbourne. To date, it is his last test hundred.
Unfortunately for England, Cook’s form has suffered this summer, and he has decided that, at the age of just 33, now is the time to declare on his test career. Cook, while by no means the most consistent run scorer, has been the rock of the England side for the last 12 years. He shows that natural physical talent is not the only way to be a successful international sportsman, every one of the 12,254 runs he has scored in the test arena is wrought of the blood, sweat and toil he puts into his physical fitness and mental strength.
He is also the last of a breed. Today’s test cricketers, often brought up in the hard-hitting world of white ball cricket, so very rarely exhibit the control and patience that came as read with Cook. This Friday’s test against India will be his last, and while his career will continue for many years at Essex, it is certainly the end of an era in English cricket. Let us all hope that he will bow out under the mountain of runs befitting such a great of our nation’s test side.