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Alastair Cook was under the greatest pressure of his career, but the Southampton crowd was determined to will him forward
July 27, 2014
#politeenquiries: Do runs solve Cook captaincy issue?
In the late 1960s, with flower-power and hippiedom at their peak, a large group gathered in central London determined to prove the power of positive thinking. If they all concentrated on the same thought at the same time, they believed they could move a building an inch to its left.
It was a similar story at The Ageas Bowl on the first day of the third Investec Test. You could feel the goodwill for England's captain around the ground. You feel the desperation among the spectators, among his teammates, among the coaching staff and even among the majority of the UK media, that Alastair Cook would end his run drought and register his first Test century since May 2013.
Yet, just as the hippies were unable to move that building, so Cook was unable to complete his century. All the goodwill, all the desperation, all the positive thinking was unable to take him the extra inch.
But this innings was no failure. There is too much emphasis on personal milestones in this team game and, just as an innings of 100 would have been celebrated as much as an innings of 105, so this innings of 95 still demonstrated many of Cook's admirable qualities, not least his well-organised batting, his determination and his leadership skills.
It was a brave decision to bat first. A weaker captain, a weaker man, might have seen the green-tinged wicket and used it as an excuse to delay his examination. Cook could easily have chosen to bowl first - as the captain had in the last 10 first-class games at the ground - and hidden behind the explanation that he wanted to give his seamers first use of the wicket. But he knew, deep down, that was the wrong decision for the team and, as ever, he put the team first.
Then, despite a tangible lack of confidence and, as he put it, "under the greatest pressure he had ever been under" he produced the innings his side so desperately required. It was not pretty, it was not smooth and it was not without mistakes.
There were times, with Cook thrusting his hands towards the ball as if trying to remember how he used to bat, when he timed the ball so horribly that you could almost feel the jarring sensation in his arms. And there were times, with the ball making a dead sound after a stroke, when it appeared he might be playing with a piece of driftwood rather than a finely-crafted bat. It was, for the most part, a desperate struggle.
Cook admits pressure never been higher
But Cook was never a batsman that you would fall in love with; he was a batsman you could rely upon. And it is reliance, not romance, that England need now.
It would be wrong, though, to suggest this innings answers all the criticism of Cook. It has done little to prove him a good tactician; it has done little to prove him an inspirational leader; it has done little to suggest he is at the start of a golden run of form.
Many county batsmen, if granted 28 consecutive opportunities, would contribute a sizeable innings every so often. The worth of a good Test batsman is contributing consistently. Cook still has to build upon this innings. It if takes another 20 innings for him to contribute, he will have failed. Only Mike Brearley has played more consecutive innings as an England captain and failed to score a century.
There was enduring evidence of some of his technical frailties, too. On a quicker pitch, he might have been caught in the slips from his first ball; instead the edge dropped short. On another day, he would have been caught in the slips on 15; instead Ravi Jadeja put down a relatively simple chance. And on another day, on 29, he might have been caught off the thick edge that flew through gully to the boundary. Luck will always play a large part in this game and Cook also benefited from a slow-paced wicket, a slight off-day from India's seamers and some modest fare from the support bowlers.
But he earned the short balls and wide deliveries. By leaving better outside off stump, by playing straighter, by retaining his patience and composure despite the pressure, he forced the bowlers into attempting different methods of attack and, gradually, they began to feed his strengths. Not one ball was driven to the boundary in the V between mid-off and mid-on, but he cut and pulled often. He will always be a limited player, but when he plays within those limitations he is a mightily effective one.
And, if the runs alone were not enough to remind onlookers of his worth, Cook also passed Kevin Pietersen and David Gower in the list of England's highest run-scorers in Test cricket. He is just 29, remember, and only Alec Stewart and Graham Gooch have scored more than him now.
This was not the end of Cook's journey, but it was a step in the right direction.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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