Chico’s “It’s Chico Time” had been number 1 for three consecutive weeks, Bird Flu was about to be front page of every tabloid newspaper for the next 6 months and Steve Irwin was soon to come face to face with his last stingray. March 2006 also saw the debut of Alastair Cook.
On a turning pitch in Nagpur, facing two of the greatest spinners in world cricket, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, the fresh-faced farmer scored 60 in the first innings and topped it with a debut century in the second. My cricket coach at the time infamously said: “He will never score another century with a technique like that.” 12, 254 runs and 32 centuries later we are looking back on the career of the most decorated English batsman of all time. He was the youngest batsman in the history of the game to reach 7000 test runs and is the 6th highest run scorer in Test match history (he needs 147 more to overtake Kumar Sangakarra and claim 5th spot).
The dogged, ‘batten down the hatches’ Test match opener is a dying breed. Highlighted by England’s difficulty in replacing Cook’s once long-term opening partner, Andrew Strauss. 12 opening partners have come and gone in the 6 years since Strauss retired, again accentuating the incredible longevity of the man coined ‘Chef’ by the ‘Barmy Army’. Cook will have played in a record 159 consecutive Test matches when he takes to the field at The Oval on Friday. To put this feat in context, the next nearest player with any hope of surpassing him is Joe Root on just 58 successive Tests.
The permanence of Alastair Cook has been pivotal to some of the most successful times in English Test cricket history. 766 runs in an away Ashes series win in 2010 (the first for 24 years), including 235* at ‘the Gabbatoir’, the graveyard of so many previous England teams. Two centuries in his first Test series as captain, a first away win in India for 27 years in 2012. Renowned for scoring runs under pressure, Cook’s restrained batting and calming, introverted nature allowed those more ‘fashionable’, expressive individuals to steal the headlines. Pietersen, Bell, Root, Stokes, Bairstow. More expressive, aesthetically pleasing batsmen, yes, but all individuals that benefitted hugely from the pressure relieving platform that Cook invariably built for them.
In a T20 era where scoops, switch-hits and helicopter shots are all the rage, there is something to be said for the “you shall not pass” attitude of Alastair Cook. Unlike the one-day game in which batsmen are king and runs are key, the currency of Test match cricket is wickets. For much of his career, Cook’s thinking was, ‘if you can’t get me out, you can’t win’. And at the peak of his powers, the opposition rarely did. Ironic that England are now looking for batsmen in the exact mould of the man they are now losing.
It would be too easy to look back at the stoicism that permeated Alastair Cook’s tenure and see him as a purely defensive batsman. In fact, in the early part of his career, he was arguably the finest attacking back-foot batsman in world cricket. Both his cut and pull shots were things of pure beauty. Perfectly balanced he would rock back and punish short-pitched bowling with consummate ease. Later in his career, just as Rory Mcilroy might choose to leave a troublesome club in his bag, Cook ‘pulled’ some of his more attacking shots from his arsenal, in favour of safer, lower risk options. It is a testament to the skill and determination of the man that he was able to change his technique so significantly and still score so consistently. In the 12 years he has opened the batting for England he has averaged over 42 in all but three of those years.
I’ll never forget the look on Ricky Ponting’s face as he again passed 150 runs in an innings in 2010 or the cheeky grin he gave as he reached his 10,000 runs. Always polite and never controversial, the last bastion of the old guard. The quintessential English cricketer. Thanks for the memories ‘Chef’.