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August 18, 2011
It's not often that a team's challenge can be written off inside 26 overs, but India's performance on a rain-hit first day at The Oval was apathetic beyond compare. In his first Test for three years, RP Singh proved to be a wayward and sluggish shadow of the tearaway who starred on his last England tour in 2007, and though Andrew Strauss had a scare when an Ishant Sharma bouncer chipped the peak of his helmet, the shock of that moment served only to exacerbate the dross that went before it.
None of that, however, mattered to England's batting coach, Graham Gooch, whose legendary appetite for run-making has been absorbed by a relentless line-up that has carried England to the top spot in Test cricket. In the day's solitary session, Gooch's Essex protégé, Alastair Cook, nudged his average above 50, as he and Strauss confirmed the wisdom of ignoring the overhead conditions, and trusting the firmness underfoot of a typical Oval wicket.
By the close, Cook was 34 not out, having scored 1630 runs at 90.55 in the 12 months since he rebooted his career with a dogged 110 on this very ground against Pakistan. Although he modestly batted back the suggestion that Cook was one of his "charges", Gooch's personal input has been one of the most significant factors in Cook's rise and rise - from their 6am training sessions in the off-season at Chelmsford, through the endless hours of throwdowns prior to every Test match, and ultimately via the insatiable appetite for run-scoring that, even in this era of prolific batsmen, leaves Gooch's England record tally of 8900 runs some 3000 clear of the nearest contemporary challenger.
"As far as I'm concerned I'll be absolutely delighted if someone goes past any of my records," said Gooch, "because it'll mean England are winning cricket matches. From the time I was a captain, player and selector, I was only interested in one thing, and that was England winning matches."
At Cook's current rate of progress, that mark will be overhauled at some stage in the next three years, and quicker still if India continue to feed his strengths to the extent that they did during his 294 at Edgbaston and again during a supremely untroubled first morning at The Oval. "Alastair continues to improve," said Gooch. "You see all the hard work he puts in. It doesn't come by chance; it's hard work and ability, and he's getting the rewards. We are proud of him."
"He has the four attributes that make up a 'run-maker'," Gooch added. "He has a great attitude; he has technical ability; his knowledge pool is increasing all the time, of how to play in certain situations; and he has the No. 1 attribute, massive powers of concentration. If you want to score 200, you can't do it in an hour; you've got to be out there for six or seven hours. You've got to play every ball singly for all that time - each ball in isolation."
During his days as England captain in the early 1990s, Gooch attempted to instil a greater discipline in England training sessions - but found that his methods were rejected by a prevailing culture that did not appreciate such a rigid onset of professionalism. Twenty years on, the England set-up is ready to embrace his driven ethos, and his involvement with the team is reaping its overdue rewards.
"Under Andy Flower, the coaching staff like to stimulate the players and challenge them with new practice routines," said Gooch. "We're always looking to push the boundaries and test the players, not just in technique but in their minds as well - to move them forward as people and cricketers.
"When you play you do what you think is right for you, and everything in good faith. That is certainly what is happening now, and everyone buys into the system. Everyone knows what they need to do. Being fit, mentally strong and having character goes side by side with having a good technique and the natural ability to score runs and take wickets. I've never seen a fitter, stronger player become a worse player."
India's cricketers could do with a dose of such realism at the end of a flaccid campaign. Like Zaheer Khan in the first Test at Lord's, RP Singh looked short of the requisite fitness for Test cricket, as indeed did Virender Sehwag, whose continued involvement in the tour had been shrouded in mystery before the toss.
"The Indian line-up is tried and trusted, with some of the greatest names the game has ever seen," said Gooch. "They've not got the runs they would have liked but I'm sure they'll be out there in the nets tomorrow." Whether they are there at 8.30am, however, like Gooch and his England batsmen, remains very much to be seen.
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