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At some point in the next three days, England will be confirmed as the best Test side in the world, but the race for the mace is already as good as over
August 11, 2011
The sunsets aren't the same, and the temperatures were several notches lower, but the sense of imperious inevitability was plain for all to see. On the second day at Edgbaston, England turned in their most dominant display since their Ashes-crushing performance at Sydney back in January.
A crowd that turned up in grim and foreboding drizzle watched as the clouds dispersed to leave a glorious day for batting, and by the close, their hymns of praise were soused with that Antipodean sense of absolutism. At some point in the next three days, England will be confirmed as the best Test side in the world, but the race for the mace is already as good as over.
Soaking up the adulation, then as now, was the staggeringly indomitable Alastair Cook, a batsman whose concentration levels have been replenished after the briefest hiatus in the first two Tests. He totalled 20 runs at Lord's and Trent Bridge, his certainty outside off stump scuppered by Praveen Kumar's sometimes remarkable late movement. At the fifth attempt, however, he extended his extraordinary run of form to seven hundreds in 18 innings, with his overnight total of 182 now his highest on English soil.
"It's been frustrating not getting through that new ball, but when you do, you have to make it count because that makes you forget the low scores," said Cook, whose tally of 19 Test hundreds now places him on a plateau preserved only for the greats of the game. If that seems a premature accolade to dispatch in his direction, then consider the fact that he does not turn 27 until Christmas Day. Only Sachin Tendulkar, with 22 hundreds, had more to his name at the same age. And he's not done too badly for himself in the interim.
As a point of comparison, Graham Gooch, Cook's great mentor, played into his 40s for an England tally of 20 ("It'll be a shame if I match him," was Cook's take on that), while the legendary Wally Hammond is the national record-holder with 22. While many people may protest that conditions have changed in the interim and batting in 2010s is nothing like as tough as it was back in the day, both men are sure to be overhauled in the coming months and years by a batsman whose taste for "daddy" hundreds is growing with every knock.
A "daddy" hundred, in Gooch's inimitable definition, is a score in excess of 150, and there was a period in Cook's early career when his precocious returns were offset by an inability to kick on to anything approaching such heights. The highest of his first seven hundreds was a meagre 127 against Pakistan in 2006, and that three-figured profligacy brought to mind Mark Waugh or Allan Lamb, rather than the arch-accumulation of a man such as Gooch, who converted eight of his 20 tons, including a grand-daddy 333 against India in 1990.
"We talk about trying to make daddy hundreds, and my last few ones have all been quite big ones," Cook said. "I think it's important I've managed to do that, but I'll try not to get carried away, because we've got to keep working hard. You see the team's work ethic with Goochie coming on board [as batting coach], our results have gone through the roof, but as I proved in first two games, it's easy to not score runs."
Cook's own returns began to change when he took advantage of a Bridgetown featherbed to make 139 not out in February 2009. Since that date he's turned six of his subsequent 11 centuries into scores of 148 or more, and by the close of the second day at Edgbaston, his average century score stood at a venerable 184.50 - a particularly impressive notch for an opening batsman.
Not for the first time this year, Cook's efforts over-shadowed those of his captain and opening partner, Andrew Strauss, who made all the running in the critical early stages of the innings, particularly on that awkward first evening when he outscored Cook 2 to 1. However, with his first home century for two years in his sights, he lost his concentration - and leg stump - while lining up a sweep against Amit Mishra.
"We said when we got past the 100 that it was about time we did something," said Cook, after four consecutive failures from England's prolific opening pairing, who have now amassed more than 4000 runs in 96 stands. But right at this moment, and irrespective of the captaincy, there's no question which of the two is the key influence on the team . Since his career-redefining 110 against Pakistan at The Oval last summer, Cook has top-scored in 11 of their 19 stands, and has never yet been dismissed for less than 55. Strauss, by contrast, hasn't passed 52 on the eight occasions when he's outlasted his partner.
That suggests that Cook has perfected the art of cashing in when the going is good to firm. Watching him harvest his scores is, as Graeme Swann memorably quipped, one of the world's great cures for insomnia, but on his watch it is only ever the opposition fans and players who drift out of consciousness. As the raucous atmosphere inside Edgbaston gleefully confirmed, there's nothing dull about one of England's own taking a team as illustrious as India to the cleaners, and the longer and deeper he dragged his own performance, the more the cracks appeared in an increasingly fragile opposition.
By the final session, it was just like watching the Ashes - the Ashes in the mid-1990s that is, with England displaying a ruthlessness that no side has matched since the Aussies were in their pomp. The desire to build, and build, and build, was a two-pronged strategy that Cook eagerly acknowledged, and the sight in the final over of Rahul Dravid dropping his second catch of the day, and flinging his cap to the turf in frustration, confirmed how effectively England had baked their opponents.
"Yes, we knew that if we put a lot of miles in their legs again, as we have been doing in the last two Test matches, it gives our bowlers time to rest up and takes a toll on their bowlers," he said. "We have an ethos of trying to improve every time we play. Obviously the Ashes was fantastic and we want to keep hitting those standards, but we're not satisfied with what we've done and never will be. This team wants to stay together for a long time, and do something very special."
It's impossible to see any get-out for India. The pitch is beginning to show signs of dusting up, which will give Graeme Swann his first and best opportunity to make a major contribution to this series, but long before he gets involved, there's a host of runs for England to put on the board, and three eager seamers who ought to have had the best part of two days' rest and recuperation.
Not since the 1985 Ashes has an England team enjoyed such unchecked dominance in a marquee home series, and even in that heady summer they allowed Allan Border to extend Australia's dominance at Lord's. Before that, the only comparable occasion in which pre-series expectation was matched by such a thorough home performance came in 1957, when Peter May's world-beaters crushed a West Indies side that had shocked them 3-1 seven years previously. For the first time since that heady decade, England can truly boast that they are the best Test nation in the world.
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