March 18, 2006 was a special date. For one, it marked the start of Rahul Dravid’s 100th Test match. For another, it was the start of Sachin Tendulkar’s 132nd Test match, taking him past Kapil Dev’s tally as the highest capped Indian cricketer. He’s remained that since, while also being the most capped cricketer of all time.
It was an India v England match at the Wankhede Stadium, the third and final Test of the series. It was also later made famous when a small section of the crowd booed Tendulkar. Finally, it also happens to be the only match that Alastair Cook has missed playing for England since his debut earlier that month in the first Test of the series.
Since Cook’s debut on March 1 that year, England have played 146 Tests. Their former captain has featured in 145, and he wouldn’t even have missed that one if he hadn’t been laid low by a stomach bug on the morning of the match.
One match missed in 11 and a half years. He hasn’t known what it is to get dropped ever. He hasn’t been injured. Which are all important points to consider when you begin to wonder if Cook might just be able to topple Tendulkar from the perch of Test cricket’s highest run-getters’ list.
So far, Cook has 11,568 runs. While the number of runs is sizeable, what is truly remarkable is the number of Tests Cook has played. It’s far and away the most of any player since Cook’s debut. James Anderson is second, but 30 behind on 115. Stuart Broad and Ian Bell have 107 each, while Hashim Amla has 104. Of the top six, five are Englishmen and two of those – Bell and Kevin Pietersen (96) – don’t play anymore. The ones following Pietersen are Michael Clarke (95), AB de Villiers (92), and the duo of MS Dhoni (84) and Brendon McCullum (84). De Villiers is on a sabbatical, and the rest of those are not active any longer.
It tells you of Cook’s durability. Of course, given that his average is only 46.83 – not bad but not great – it also indicates that Cook has perhaps got a longish rope through his troughs. The thing about his troughs though, is that Cook hasn’t had more than one seriously extended one, which also hints at the fact that he hasn’t hit unimaginable peaks either. He has been steadily better than average almost throughout, which is exactly how you would think of Cook’s career as a whole. Unspectacular but solid. Consistent but not quite dazzling. Sure, he will come up with a 243 like he did against Windies, but he’s not going to reel off 1500-plus runs in a year. The most he has scored in a calendar year is 1364 runs. And despite playing 11 Tests or more in eight years, he has passed 1000 runs in a calendar year only five times.
Looking in very broad tranches at Cook’s career, this flattening of peaks and troughs is more evident.
|Mar ’06 to Aug ’10||60||108||6||4364||42.78||13||22||48.34||9028||83.59|
|Nov ’10 to May ’13||32||55||4||3160||61.96||12||7||46.50||6796||123.56|
|Jul ’13 to Aug ’14||17||31||1||899||29.97||0||9||41.51||2166||69.87|
|April ’15 to now||36||68||4||3145||49.14||6||17||47.47||6625||97.43|
His best period was the one that encompassed England’s away wins in the Ashes and in India. After that, he went into a form funk that lasted more than a year, scoring no centuries in 17 Tests and averaging less than 30 in that period. The series against India at home in mid-2014 helped him break out of that rut, and he’s back to normal now.
The conventional numbers – averages, hundreds and fifties — are self-evident enough. It’s also interesting to see the ‘Balls per innings’ figure. Understandably, when he was in prime form, he faced more balls per innings, and during his downturn, the figure came down indicating, that he was getting out quicker. In his current period though, he’s facing almost 100 balls per innings on average. Of course, an innings of 243 in 407 balls acts on the average like consuming a 12-pack of beer does on the calories. But even without that, Cook averages 46.06 in the current period, with a balls per innings figure of 92.81.
That is the remarkable consistency you get with Cook. Remarkable not because of the tallness of scores – the 243s and 294s are outliers as the overall average shows – but because he’s stayed in that narrow band that is more-than-good but less-than-great for an elongated, yet concentrated, period of time.
While this counts against Cook when you speak of ‘all-time greatness’, it will help him enormously in the quest to become Test cricket’s biggest run accumulator.
Tendulkar was helped by the freak occurrence of a talent so rare that he could last at the international level for 24 years, with very few ‘tailing off’ periods in terms of form. Playing Test cricket at the rate India did in decades past, you needed that length of career to rack up top-of-the-lot numbers. If Tendulkar had played at the rate of Cook – who has 145 Tests in 114 months as an international cricketer — he would have played 350 Tests.
It’s not probable for a cricketer to play for 24 years, and this where Cook’s Test schedule comes to the rescue. It is, in its own way, as much of a freak as a cricketer playing for close to two and a half decades in the modern game. And for a cricketer like Cook, who can be relied on more often than not to score steadily, a steady diet of Test cricket almost ensures the runs piling up.
So, can Cook go past Tendulkar? Right now he’s 4353 runs away. At the rate he’s scoring currently per Test, he will need about 54 to 55 Tests to make that many runs. Throw in some extra leeway for possible dips in form with advancing age, and maybe it will be 60-65 Tests, give or take a few.
With reports of a Test championship swirling, there is still not enough clarity whether the current FTP holds till its 2023 schedule, but assuming the number of Tests England play aren’t going to vary as much regardless of any possible changes, the team would have played 60 Tests by the time the away Ashes at the end of 2021 is over. After that, they are slated to play Pakistan away and Windies at home for a total of five Tests. Thus Cook should – possibly – topple Tendulkar by the time IPL 2022 rolls around.
Can Cook last till then? He’ll be 37 years old when that series finishes. He’s soon to be 33 and scoring at his usual rate for now. He’s the kind of batsman you think might not be as affecting in terms of pure batting with advancing age, at least not as much as you’d think a Pietersen would. Then too, Cook is a one-format player now, which allows for greater longevity.
For the sake of rough calculations, say England’s strength as a team doesn’t change, so that the innings Cook plays per Test (currently 1.81) stays constant. He will then have played 117 innings with 65 more Tests. Given that many knocks, Cook only needs to score at an average of 37+ to get to the 4353 runs needed.
It seems doable, but there’s a lot of ifs. It is possible only IF he continues to remain injury free, only IF he doesn’t suffer the form downturn of 2013-14, only IF the future can be mapped with reasonable accuracy from the past.
It’s a whole lot of IFs. It is equally likely to happen, or not happen. But then we never thought anyone in Wankhede would ever boo Tendulkar, did we?