At some point in the future, historians – should they remain legal in the post-factual galaxy – will sit down to write The Definitive History of Planet Earth: 2006 to 2016. They will pick over a world of bewildering social change, breakneck technological evolution and frenetic, furious politics. When they scrutinise cricket, they will see a sport buffeted and renewed by these riptides of revolution. Yet amid it all has been an immutable bulwark, apparently standing outside time: in a world devoted to the instantaneous, Alastair Cook’s Test career has been an epic of throwback pragmatism.
Cook has played 140 Test matches in 11 years, scoring over 11,000 runs, with 83 innings of 50 or more. He has batted for 551 hours in Tests, of which a record 522 as an opener is three days more than the next man, Geoffrey Boycott. Ever present since illness ruled him out of the third Test of his debut series, in India, he has been nothing if not stoic. And, during the course of a golden-goose-squeezing 31 Tests between April 2015 and December 2016, Cook overtook Graham Gooch’s England record of 8,900, crossed the 10,000 mark, and finished the tour of India with 11,057 and 30 hundreds, another England record.
Beneath the surface, however, lies a career of curious inconsistencies, of mountainous achievements and prolonged plateaus; certainties have been transformed, as if elements of his batting have had their polarity reversed.
Cook’s Test career can be broadly broken into four phases. The first consists of his stellar initial burst, starting with his debut at Nagpur when, aged 21, he made 60 and 104 not out against Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh following a three-day journey from the West Indies to the heart of India. He added two more centuries, as well as 89 and 83, in the summer of 2006, becoming the first Englishman to score three Test hundreds before his 22nd birthday. It is the kind of stat that has followed him around ever since.
The four phases of Cook
|March 2006 to August 2006||9||16||2||761||127||3||3||54.35|
|November 2006 to August 2010||51||92||4||3603||173||10||19||40.94|
|November 2010 to December 2012||27||46||4||2753||294||10||7||65.54|
|March 2013 to December 2016||53||99||5||3940||263||7||24||41.91|
Phase Two stretched from the 2006-07 Ashes to the end of the 2010 season, during which his returns against the best opposition were unspectacular. In England’s 5–0 whitewash in Australia, Cook made a hundred at Perth but otherwise did not reach 50, as the naggery of Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark produced his first prolonged struggle. His overall numbers were buttressed by runs against West Indies and Bangladesh, but against top-seven teams Cook averaged 33 in 36 Tests, with just four hundreds in 66 innings. The period included another low-key Ashes (he averaged 24 in 2009), excellent hundreds in Sri Lanka and South Africa, and a horror run against Pakistan in 2010, when a century at The Oval dispersed the first and only selectorial vultures to hover over his Test place.
The sheer size of Cook’s numbers stems not only from his enduring quality and remarkable fitness record, but also from the era in which he has played. Since 2000, England have had an average of 13 Tests a year, the most intensive schedule in history. He has benefited from belonging to the age of central contracts: the trapdoor-trigger selectors of yore might not have tolerated his second-phase lull. This stability is highlighted by the fact that Cook has had 63 England team-mates in his 140 Tests; Michael Atherton acquired 64 in his first 57 Tests alone.
From the ruins of 2010 emerged Phase Three – a number-crunching peak in which he averaged 65 in 27 Tests and scored ten centuries, five over 175, including a career-best 294 against India at Edgbaston, the second-highest score by an England player in the past 52 years. This period was bookended by Cook’s two greatest series: his Himalayan Ashes of 2010-11, and – in his first series as full-time captain – a triumphant tour of India two winters later.
His overall Ashes performance highlights the statistical oddness of his career. Of the six he has taken part in, 2010-11 was his only major success – a methodical, 766-run disembowelment of Australia, second only to Wally Hammond’s 905 in 1928-29 among English Ashes aggregates; Cook’s average that winter of 127 is second to Don Bradman’s 139 in 1930 among those who have played a complete Ashes series. But he averaged below 30 in 2006-07, 2009, 2013 and 2013-14, and a modest 36 in 2015. In England, he is without an Ashes hundred in 28 innings over three winning series, and has passed 51 only once in eight home Test wins against Australia.
Phase Four comprises everything since the start of 2013, when he has remained a consistent run-maker and milestone-passer, averaged just under 42 in 53 Tests, but made relatively few centuries (seven), and defined and dominated few matches.
Alongside, and sometimes overlapping, these phases have been peaks, troughs and assorted crinkles in Cook’s underlying statistical substrata. Take his conversion stats. By the end of June 2007, he had turned six of his first 11 half-centuries into hundreds. Between then and the end of the Third Test in the Caribbean in February 2009, it was only one out of 14. But between the Fourth, in Barbados, where he scored 94 and 139 not out on a futile featherbed, and the start of the 2013 Ashes, he converted 18 out of 29 (along with five dismissals in the nineties) – the second-best out of the 46 batsmen with at least ten half-centuries in that period, behind only Jacques Kallis.
Between July 2013 and December 2016, by contrast, Cook converted only five of his 29 fifties into hundreds – the second-worst conversion rate among the 38 players with ten or more, ahead only of West Indies’ Jermaine Blackwood. In other words, while he reached 50 with almost precisely the same regularity over both periods (once every three-and-a-bit innings), the Cook who gave honours-board engravers repetitive strain injury shed the cocoon of accumulation that once habitually formed around his innings. This may be attributable to the burden of captaincy, which he relinquished in February 2017. After all, he scored six hundreds in his first seven Tests in charge – including two as stand-in captain for Andrew Strauss in Bangladesh in early 2010 – but only six more in 52 games since. The regularity of his half-centuries suggests his form has remained largely intact; his downward-spiralling conversion rate suggests his intensity has not.
Other aspects of Cook’s batting have undergone similarly enigmatic mutations. For much of his career, he was virtually unbowlable. His weakness lay in the poke outside off, which – allied to his strength off his legs – led bowlers to steer clear of the stumps. They were disturbed only 12 times in his first 98 Tests – once every 1,400 deliveries (for other Test openers across the same period the average figure was 449). Cook played on nine times, and was bowled off his pads once. So he had been clean-bowled twice in more than 17,000 balls, by two Pakistani Mohammads – Sami at Lord’s in 2006, and Amir at Edgbaston in 2010.
The leading Test run-scorers since Cook made his debut on March 1, 2006:
|11,057||A. N. Cook (E)||140||253||15||294||30||46.45|
|8463||K. C. Sangakkara (SL)||80||144||12||319||30||64.11|
|7737||H. M. Amla (SA)||97||163||13||311*||26||51.58|
|7571||M. J. Clarke (A)||95||167||20||329*||26||51.5|
|7507||K. P. Pietersen (E)||96||165||7||227||21||47.51|
|6955||A. B. de Villiers (SA)||92||151||15||278*||18||51.13|
|6946||I. R. Bell (E)||107||186||22||235||20||42.35|
|6538||Younis Khan (P)||73||133||16||313||23||55.88|
|6455||D. P. M. D. Jayawardene (SL)||74||130||5||374||21||51.64|
|6015||L. R. P. L. Taylor (NZ)||80||145||17||290||16||46.99|
As at February 8, 2017.
But in his 99th Test, at Adelaide in 2013-14, Mitchell Johnson bowled him one of Test cricket’s least defendable deliveries, a 93mph outswinging masterpiece that, even with a month’s advance notice in writing, would still have smashed into off stump. Then, in his 100th, Ryan Harris produced an even better delivery, and Cook was cleanly castled again. His stumps have never regained their sense of undisturbability: perhaps because he has become more adept at avoiding edges, bowlers have aimed a fraction straighter, and so in his last 42 Tests Cook has been bowled 16 times, once every 421 deliveries. His timbers were even shivered twice by spinners over the winter – he played on attempting to sweep Shakib Al Hasan in Chittagong, and was clean bowled by Ravichandran Ashwin in Mohali, the third and fourth time he had been bowled by spinners in 8,472 deliveries.
For most of his career, Cook was one of the world’s most secure players of slow bowling. Until the start of the 2015 summer, he averaged 67 against spin, falling once every 150 balls; against pace, he averaged 40, falling once every 84. Over the span of Cook’s career, only Kumar Sangakkara and Joe Root had proved harder for spinners to dismiss. Then came another reversal: from the 2015 summer onwards, he has averaged 34 against spin and 59 against seam. Until then, his spin-average was comfortably the best among the 15 batsmen who had opened in at least 50 innings during that period of Cook’s career; against pace, he was ninth best. Since then, his pace-average is the best of the 15 most regular openers, but his spin-average the tenth.
Loitering within this metamorphosis lies a further anomaly. Against the six all-time leading wicket-takers among Test spinners – Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Kumble, Harbhajan, Daniel Vettori and Rangana Herath – Cook has an aggregate of 598 for nine. Against part-timers Mohammad Hafeez, Ryan Hinds, Mahmudullah and Kane Williamson, it is 169 for ten. Bangladesh’s teenage debutant off-spinner Mehedi Hasan dismissed him three times in 82 balls in October; in six Tests, Murali got him twice in 450. And before the 2016-17 series in India, Cook averaged 101 against left-arm spin. Then Ravindra Jadeja dismissed him six times, for 75 runs. In a universe that has delivered Donald Trump as president of the United States, perhaps quirks such as these should no longer surprise us.
Cook has been an opener for the ages, yet has never found an ideal partner. He has opened England’s batting in 240 Test innings, 117 times with Andrew Strauss, and 123 times with 13 others. His partnership with Strauss produced an average of 40 per stand, a reasonable figure, but lower than you might expect from two successful Test openers. Strauss was far more productive with the more aggressive Marcus Trescothick and, in a delight for irony aficionados, Cook’s most fruitful regular partner in Tests for any wicket has been Kevin Pietersen – and Pietersen’s, Cook.
In 58 Test partnerships, before one of sport’s less amicable partings of the ways, they added 50 or more 28 times, including 13 century stands (of which eight contributed to victories), and averaged a superb 64. There is more: of the 61 England pairings to have shared at least 25 partnerships, Cook and Pietersen are fourth, behind Hobbs and Sutcliffe (average 87), Barrington and Dexter (66), and Barrington and Cowdrey (64). Cook and Strauss are 40th, and Strauss and Pietersen 59th, with a monosyllable-overheard-on-a-microphone-foreboding average of just 28.
How Alastair Cook made it to five figures:
|1,000||13||24||7* (20)||v Australia at Melbourne, 2006-07||4||46.04|
|2,000||26||48||13* (44)||v New Zealand at Wellington, 2007-08||7||44.15|
|3,000||40||73||97* (139)||v West Indies at Bridgetown, 2008-09||8||44.08|
|4,000||53||96||31* (39)||v Bangladesh at Chittagong, 2009-10||11||44.04|
|5,000||65||115||59* (189)||v Australia at Sydney, 2010-11||16||47.5|
|6,000||75||131||22* (49)||v Pakistan at Dubai, 2011-12||19||48.6|
|7,000||86||151||88* (190)||v India at Kolkata, 2012-13||23||50.36|
|8,000||101||181||18* (51)||v Australia at Melbourne, 2013-14||25||46.97|
|9,000||114||204||56* (56)||v New Zealand at Leeds, 2015||27||46.87|
|10,000||128||229||5* (47)||v Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street, 2016||28||46.49|
|11,000||140||252||2* (10)||v India at Chennai, 2016-17||30||46.44|
Figures for hundreds and averages are to the end of the innings in which he achieved the milestone.
Curiosities naturally dwell within the statistics of almost every player, particularly those who have played as much as Cook. Yet some of his curiosities are especially curious. Before May 2010, for example, he averaged more in the first and fourth innings of Tests (50 and 46) than in the second and third (37 and 42). Since then, he has averaged almost twice as many in the second and third (60 apiece) as in the first and fourth (32 and 33). Scientists may well unravel the mysteries of life itself before they concoct a satisfactory explanation.
Cook has been an accumulator in the Age of Biff, a totem of anti-flamboyance in an era of compulsory entertainment, England’s immovable island of certainty during years of cricketing flux. Yet beneath his changeless facade of hawk-eyed focus and impassive resolve – and camouflaged by the jerky unorthodoxies that sporadically bloom into a majestic pull, a surgical cut or a weighty clip – lurks a narrative of sweeping and sometimes inexplicable undulations, a patchwork of triumphs and failures, mastery and struggle, that has shaped English Test cricket for more than a decade.