Cook puts substance over style in ton
Twenty years ago, almost to the week, another under-fire left-handed batsman booked himself a flight to Australia by serving up a century in the second innings of a critical contest at The Oval. Against India in 1990, David Gower knew he had one last chance to prove his worth, and duly did so with an iron-willed 157 not out, a performance that confirmed his matchless style was underpinned by some serious and often-overlooked substance.
The two men may line up at the crease in the same direction, and they may have made equally precocious arrivals on the international stage, but unlike Gower, Alastair Cook has never enjoyed the benefits of a technique that makes men of a certain age go weak at the knees. Ugly runs are the only runs he deals in - shovels, prods and savage slaps through point - a method that has had him bracketed as a purely functional performer, even from the moment, as a 21-year-old in Nagpur, he shrugged off his jetlag to score a century on debut against India.
When functional performers fail to function, as Cook had done with 106 runs in his previous eight innings of the summer, the pressure on their place seems all that more intolerable. Jonathan Trott felt it early in the year - even after beasting Bangladesh for a double-hundred at Lord's - to a degree that Kevin Pietersen still avoids even after extending his centuryless stint to 15 Tests and counting. But on a day in which Cook's 110 proved to be almost exactly 50% of a fragile team total of 221 for 9, the value of a player who puts substance ahead of all other attributes feels immeasurable.
It is why, in spite of a summer's top score of 29 and an average of 13.25, Andrew Strauss was so eager to ensure his opening partner was preserved for this game that he all but named the side in his post-match press conference at Edgbaston last week. It is why the selectors lumped Cook with the England captaincy for the tour of Bangladesh back in March, a challenge he carried off with distinction when most people queried such an over-promotion at the age of 25. And it is why he was able, finally, to come good today, with his place in the side at the point of no return.
"Yeah, I've been feeling under pressure," Cook admitted at the close. "When you are playing for England, there's always pressure and when you don't perform that multiplies a lot. But to respond like I did today was very satisfying and showed some character. You don't know what it's like until you get into that situation, but it doesn't mean I'm out of the woods either. Even if you are in the best form ever, you've still got to work hard, and I'm going to keep doing that over the next couple of days."
For all that it felt like a last chance at redemption - and another failure today could well have forced his omission at Lord's next week - it is hard to believe that England could possibly have taken the field at Brisbane without Cook up against the new ball. In many ways, his value is best expressed by the chaos it would cause to replace him. Would Michael Carberry really inspire greater confidence were he to take guard for his second Test in the Gabbatoir? And if Trott was bumped up from his niche at No. 3, what sort of a chain reaction of rejigging would ensue? Ian Bell - so content in the middle-order - would doubtless be forced to face up to his demons at first-drop.
The fact that Cook is second only to Sachin Tendulkar as the youngest batsman to 4000 Test runs tells only a fraction of the story. On the last Ashes tour, for instance, he grappled with his demons - and a serious weakness to the rising delivery outside off - to chisel an immensely courageous century at Perth, and then there was his captaincy experience in Bangladesh back in March, when he kept his cool in a tour in which anything less than a clean sweep would have been a failure, and led from the front with centuries in each Test, and a starring role in three one-day victories as well.
Therein lies the value of a man with no technical niceties to hide behind. When he was bowled neck and crop on the final day at Edgbaston last week, trapped on the crease as Mohammad Amir destroyed his stumps, every pundit in the land had an opinion about his footwork, and like a clique of quacks diagnosing the madness of King George, the conflicting prescriptions merely added to the sense of a game shot to pieces. But Cook took stock, belted a brisk 38 from 22 balls in Twenty20 finals day at the Rose Bowl to remind himself how it felt to find the middle of the bat, and fronted up to the fact that he had no place to hide.
"You can get carried away with technique," Cook said. "I've had a lot of advice over the last couple of weeks, so I tried to go out and hit the ball and score some runs, and not worry so much about my feet and my backlift. I just tried to be more positive. Obviously the conditions allowed me to do that, they were quite tough at the top of the order, but I wasn't going to die wondering and that helped my defence."
He needed some good fortune, as all the best batsmen do, and he got it early in the day when three edges through the slips - including two in two balls - turned into 12 runs through third man, rather than a long walk back up the pavilion steps. "When you're in a bad run of form, you find ways to get out, so you need a bit of luck," said Cook. "That's one of the tough things about batting, to keep believing it will change. Today it did change for me, and luckily I cashed in to make the most of it."
Cook's week began so badly that James Anderson even sacked him as his "batting buddy", in a bid to rid himself of his recent spate of ducks. "That was a hammer blow," Cook joked. "When you're down you're down." But today he picked himself back up, and saved his broadest grin of the summer for the moment of slapstick from Mohammad Asif that brought him to his hundred. A textbook forward defensive was winged away for four overthrows, to bring the house down and leave his team-mate Eoin Morgan baffled as he listened to the roar but watched a singularly runless block on a delayed TV feed in the dressing-room.
"It was the nicest way ever," said Cook. "I've had some strange ways of scrambling singles to get to hundreds, but a throw over the keeper's head for four did make me smile."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.