Rhythm. For something impractical to define, it generates a lot of expertise; who has it, who doesn’t. Like its bedfellow, form; who is in it, who isn’t. Still, it’s hard to challenge its existence.
Alastair Cook’s groove is easier to spot than most, never more than when raising his 10,000th Test run on Monday (May 30) courtesy of his trademark clip. It isn’t a version of the stroke with the aesthetics of Waugh or Laxman, but it’s so productive.
Cook laughed when reflecting on the fashion he got the milestone, which he’d been in striking distance of since January. With 10 years and 90 days elapsing since his debut, he’s 18 months faster to the mark than any other. At 31 years and 157 days, he’s the youngest too; less miles on the clock than even Sachin Tendkular.
“It was a great moment for me,” Cook said after his side’s nine-wicket win in the second Test against Sri Lanka, with rare emotion in his voice. “It has driven me personally as a goal I wanted to achieve.”
It meant a lot to Cook, who has averaged a thousand runs a year since he joined the side in 2006. So it should. It will also mean plenty that after his unbeaten hand of 47, he now has more runs as England captain than any other.
His maiden ton in Nagpur came two days after he was rushed into the XI. There are easier theatres. But this is the Cook way. Another England captain, Michael Vaughan, zeroed in on this strength of purpose; a man who has looked as out of form as anyone against both red ball and white, yet today enters rarified air.
“I don’t know of a more mentally tough cricketer that England have ever produced,” he said. “At times he’s made batting look very difficult and that’s why so many people have so much admiration for him; his training and dedication.”
The Cook achievement dominated the fourth day, but there was a moment when more than one result entered realms of possibility as Sri Lanka continued to defy expectations in their second innings. Indeed, the tourists had finally broken their own destructive rhythm.
Resuming 88 behind, Dinesh Chandimal lost Milinda Siriwardana to James Anderson, who finds edges at their hardest to locate, but gained the nuggety battler Rangana Herath as his new partner. Over the next couple of hours, it was an altogether joyous union.
Initially Chandimal batted like a man who didn’t expect much support. He was going for it, nearly bringing his demise when an inside edge – the bowler Anderson, of course – was put down by Jonny Bairstow. The ’keeper has taken plenty of catches of late, but this was the second he’s grassed that he shouldn’t have. That’s the lot in life for guys with the gloves, so debate over whether he should revert to a specialist batting position will continue.
And continue is exactly what Chandimal did with a pair of searing cover-drives, the first where his back knee was low enough to be knighted. After both he and Herath cashed in off Steve Finn’s three overs (more on that later), their stand was 50, and he was into the 90s.
While making hard work of those last ten runs, it was worth it for the celebration that led into a precession of his armoury – including the bat – being thrown into the air in elation. Top marks for both execution and artistry.
Then, on the verge of lunch, they had eliminated the third biggest deficit in the history of the game where the follow-on enforcers would need to bat again. When Chandimal cover-drove with the final ball of the session, their total soared beyond 400; fanciful a day earlier.
After the break, it was Herath’s time. The 38-year-old had one half-century in his career and he be damned if he wasn’t going to give it a shake number two. He slog-swept his opposing spinner in Moeen Ali before busting out some audacious reverse sweeps against the same bowler. Between times, James Vince dropped him, the second time that Anderson had been denied. A single brought up the well-made 50.
However, just as one started typing “Headingley 1981” into google, Herath finally fell, lbw to Anderson, who became the sixth man to have 450 Test wickets in his column.
Resistance continued from Chandimal, popping Moeen over the fence, but the end was near. He’d be the ninth wicket to fall, for 126.
As for Moeen, Sunday had been one of his best with an unbeaten 155, but he’d given nearly just as many back with the ball. Cook said later that the conditions slower weren’t “that English” over the final two days, but Moeen couldn’t capitalise.
Appropriately, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes both got into the book at the end, combining with Anderson for 18 of the wickets England took for the match. Sri Lanka left England 79 for victory, but more importantly, tallied 475 the second time around.
Angelo Mathews, the captain, said that after the embarrassment of day two, they “talked a lot about bringing fight back into the team” and that’s what they had done with 164 more runs in this innings than their three previous combined.
Chandimal symbolised the turnaround better than anyone – he was responsible for the awful dropped catch behind the stumps on morning two before nicking off in single digits. It takes resilience to bounce back from that.
Anderson was the standout for man of the match with a second -innings five-wicket bag earning match figures of 8 for 94. His 18 series wickets have come at just a fraction more than seven apiece. He only gets better. What does he cite? You guessed it.
“I am delighted with my form; I have really good rhythm,” he said. “When you get into this rhythm, you want to keep bowling and taking wickets because it is not going to last forever.”
One teammate who knows that conundrum is Finn, whose technique is scrutinised more than any other in their camp. Finn presents as a sensitive soul for a fast bowler, especially when down on pace and confidence. Talking on Sunday, he freely admitted that it was “no secret” that he was “searching for rhythm” (that word again).
Vaughan reinforced this, saying that it is “quite visible that he’s not right.” Finn’s comments later prompted his bowling coach Ottis Gibson to say that he dwells too much on the negatives and overthinks his craft.
The public conversation over his bowling is all too familiar, Finn famously being sent home from the 2013-14 Ashes tour when he was considered “not selectable.”
Who knows the effect of Woakes’s excellent first performance back in the England XI, generating an unplayable snorter of a delivery on the fourth day on the docile track? By contrast, Finn’s radar was awfully askew, the final of his overs on Monday 15 runs. He wasn’t thrown the ball again.
England have announced that they’ll take the same squad of 12 into the Test at Lord’s, but whether Finn can keep Jake Ball out of the starting XI is unclear. For better or worse, Finn won’t get another chance to bowl in a red-ball game before then. But what he’d give for a little bit of… yeah, you guessed it.