Gooch fine-tunes his young protege
As England's batsmen struggle to make a lasting impression in their seven-match ODI series against Australia, one player previously discarded from their limited-overs plans is busily plotting his route back into the set-up. Since stepping down from England duty after the fifth Test at The Oval, Alastair Cook has been taking advantage of a rare extended spell with his county Essex to tinker with a technique that was at times found wanting during the summer, and dispel the suspicions that he lacks the allround game required to succeed in all three formats of international cricket.
Though Cook played only a minor role in Essex's Pro40 victory over Somerset on Tuesday, his previous two matches against Hampshire and Durham both produced centuries, and were notable for a new and tighter technique that appeared to have opened up new scoring opportunities while addressing the problems of balance that often had him fencing into the slip cordon during the Ashes.
And to that end, he has been working with his mentor, Graham Gooch - himself a man who underwent some notable technical tinkering throughout his 20 years as a Test cricketer - with the aim of being fully in command of his game come the tour to South Africa in two months' time.
"Obviously it's a great time, after the Ashes, to have a look at my game," Cook told Cricinfo. "I've got a bit of time away from international cricket before I hopefully play in South Africa, so I've been working with Goochy to iron out a few flaws which might have been causing me problems in the Ashes. I didn't score as many runs as I'd have liked to in that series, so it's a good time to have a think, and maybe try and make a few technical changes."
Cook had his moments against Australia, in particular his first-day 95 at Lord's, which came during one of the decisive passages of play in the entire summer. At other times, however, he appeared to be getting by on sheer chutzpah alone, as his twin scores of 30 in the fourth-Test debacle at Headingley amply demonstrated. Though he had the mental fortitude to avoid getting swept up in England's twin collapses in that two-and-a-half day contest at Leeds, he was unable to convert his start in either innings.
"Alastair has had a wonderful start to his career with Essex and England," Gooch told Cricinfo. "To score the amount of runs he has at a young age is a testament to his skill, not only in terms of his technique but his temperament as well, which was on display right from his century on debut in Nagpur [in March 2006]. He's scored runs at every level and that's worth its weight in gold, a lot of players don't find that composure, ever.
"I have no major concerns," Gooch added, "but every player in his career has times when he has to look at, review, and make minor adjustments to his technique, in order to get back to playing your best."
Gooch himself underwent two major technical changes, the first in 1979 when he adopted his famous "stand-and-deliver" stance, and then again ten years later, after Terry Alderman's medium pace during the 1989 Ashes exposed a major problem against the moving ball. That latter alteration allowed Gooch to push on to become the No. 1 batsman in the world, and so Cook needs no convincing of the benefits of a remodelling.
"I've scored a lot of Test runs batting the way I have batted all the way through my life, so it's hard to say that I've got a terrible technique," he said. "But I think that this is the right thing to do, because I am striving to be as good as I can be. I've had a good career so far, but I don't want to settle for that, I always want to be better, and to have someone like Goochy working in your camp, and prepared to put the hours in is great because he's opened the batting for England 120 times in Tests, and he knows what you go through.
"It basically comes down to a bit of change in my footwork, a bit of change in my backlift, and maybe a bit of alignment as well," he said. "They aren't huge changes, but they are important to do because those areas are probably the three major things of batting, and it's important they all work in synch. There'll be days when it doesn't work, as I try to get the rhythm of batting back, but it will help me in the long term."
With a diet of one-day cricket ahead of England, and the squads for the Champions Trophy already selected, Cook knows a return to the top of the ODI batting order is a long way off as yet. But having struck a 57-ball century for Essex against Surrey in the Twenty20 Cup back in June, he's beginning to believe that his time will come in the shorter forms of the game.
"With the Twenty20 World Cup this season, I knew I'd be playing a lot more 20-over cricket for Essex, and it's given me a good chance to try and learn a little bit of the game," he said. "It's been great fun exploring it, and learning new shots like the little dink over the keeper's head, or the sweep over fine leg. These are shots I've never played before, and though I'm nowhere near the finished article, it's proved to me that I can score runs in that format, and if I do get another chance in the one-day game for England, I can do better than last time, and try and cement a place at the top of the order.
"It's disappointing now not to be involved," he said. "It hurts more now, because before there was the euphoria of winning the Ashes, and that was the only thought that occupied my mind. The thought of the other lads going off for a one-dayer in Ireland with a hangover wasn't the most appealing thing, but now I'm desperately trying to get back in the one-day squad. I can't do that now because the squads have been announced, but I need to keep scoring for Essex and make sure my name on top of the waiting list."
"A good player is a good player, and they find ways of adjusting and scoring runs which suits them," said Gooch. "Alastair falls into that category. In cricket you often get labelled, and he's not broken into the one-day side on a regular basis, but he would like to do that because he wants to play every format, and why wouldn't he as a young man? He is capable of raising his game and taking on attacks and scoring at a rate, and I have every confidence that eventually he will break into that one-day team."
For Gooch, who has also had a major impact on the career and development of Ravi Bopara, the chance to work one-on-one with Cook this month has been, in his words, a "great pleasure". "I don't see him that often, because his opportunities to play for Essex are few and far between, and with the amount of international cricket there is, you have to be mentally strong to keep your game together.
"But in my experience, you don't only work on your game when something needs fine-tuning, the top players work on their game when they are playing well, because the one thing you want to keep doing is playing well."
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Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo