India v England, 1st Test, Ahmedabad, 4th day November 18, 2012

Cook plotting his path to greatness

The efforts of the England captain, with perhaps his finest innings, alongside Matt Prior may not save the opening Test but they will give the team belief for the rest of the series

When a batsman as good as Graham Gooch lavishes praise on an innings, you know it has been special. Gooch, the leading run-scorer in England Test history, has, in his own words, "seen most things" in cricket over a long and illustrious career.

But even Gooch was impressed by Alastair Cook's rearguard innings against India. He described Cook as "one of the best players in the world" and described the mammoth innings at Ahmedabad as "as good an innings as I've seen him play." Few would disagree.

Cook is, in many ways, a remarkable cricketer. He plays few shots to make a crowd roar with excitement or sigh with pleasure. He does not have the range of Kevin Pietersen or the timing of Ian Bell. He can score a century without playing a single memorable shot.

But if batting is just about scoring runs - and in Test cricket it pretty much is - then it is hard to define him as anything other than great. After all, on current form, Cook will have scored more Test runs than any other Englishman before his 30th birthday. He overtook Gooch's record of 20 Test centuries during this innings and is set to break every England run-scoring record.

Cook has made a virtue out of a vice. He knows he is not, in terms of hand-eye coordination, the most talented cricketer in this team. He knows he cannot emulate the strokeplay of Pietersen or Bell.

But, by staying within his limitations, by knowing that failure beckons if he elaborates or complicates, Cook has found a method that works. While others prosper on strength and skill and bravado, Cook prospers on concentration, denial and efficiency.

At his best, he leaves well, plays straight and is not drawn into pushing outside the off stump. Such is his patience, he either waits for the bowler to err, or he forces them to pitch short or bowl too straight. He plays few drives - he has scored just one run through mid-off and only two through mid-on during this innings - but pulls and cuts well and is good off his legs.

And he keeps going. Such is his mental strength - his concentration, his huger, his patience - that it seems he can, at his best, wear down the wind.

Perhaps his left-handedness was a help in this innings. Pragyan Ojha, by far the more dangerous of the bowlers, certainly looked more effective against the right-handers and R Ashwin was dealt with in relative comfort.

"When you've been in the game as long as I have, you've seen most things that happen," Gooch said. "We saw poor shots, poor decisions, bad mistakes, bad thinking, bad judgement and then you sometimes see the opposite.

"It was great commitment from our guys and great fighting spirit. There was belief in their own ability and Alastair led from the front as captain.

"That was as good an innings as I've seen him play because he was under great pressure after a poor first innings performance from the team.

"He can do it because he is one of the best players in the world. It is not just physical skill I'm talking about. A lot of people have physical skill. You need skill between the ears. This lad has had a great temperament from when he first started and came here to make his debut.

"He proved even then the priceless skill of knowing how to play. From the outset he knew what he could do and what he couldn't do and he still has that skill today. He crafted a century. It wasn't a flamboyant innings. He did the job that was necessary."

How typical that Matt Prior's excellence should be overshadowed. Over recent years, he has developed into a wonderfully selfless player: reliable and positive behind the stumps and with the bat. His dismissal in the first innings was typical: left with the tail for company, Prior perished in sight of a personal landmark as he attempted an ambitious boundary hit. Many would have aimed for a 'not out' to protect their average.

The turning point in his career came in 2008 when he was dropped. He had a choice, at the time, of railing at the selectors and the injustice, or taking responsibility himself. He decided on the latter course and determined to work as he had never worked before. He developed from a liability behind the stumps until he became, arguably, the best wicketkeeper in current Test cricket. He is likely to replace Craig Kieswetter in the England T20 team for the games before Christmas.

His career has seen many ups and downs: the century on debut; the immense Ashes contributions; the unfortunate broken window at Lord's and the 'jellybean' incident at Trent Bridge for which he was publically chastised but utterly blameless. But some of those close to Prior suggest that it was fatherhood, in early 2009, that changed him. They say it brought a maturity and contentment that allowed him to accept the cricketer he is. Before that he had, at times, perhaps tried to be something he was not: another Pietersen or another Adam Gilchirst. Now he has let such ambitions go and settled into the role as the ideal supporting character.

If anyone had said, at the start of day four, that it would finish with India playing for time, you might have thought they had been in the sun too long. But, as Cook and Prior edged England into a fragile lead, the over-rate - excellent for so long - slowed and it became clear that India were as glad to reach stumps as England.

India have, in most respects, outplayed England in this game. Their spinners have looked more dangerous, their batsmen - in general - more assured and their seamers have bowled with better control, gained more movement and, in the case of Yadav, generated more pace. There has not even been much to choose between the fielding of the two sides.

But the one area that England have an edge on them is fitness. Long before the end of the fourth day, several of the Indian players looked exhausted: Ashwin, in particular, became less effective and even Ojha, who has been outstanding in this game, showed signs of weariness. With the next Test starting in Mumbai on Friday, there is little time to recover.

But Cook, especially, never faltered. He did not even break sweat. He showed that India, just like England, can he ground down if the batsmen keep them in the field for long enough.

India may feel unfortunate. It is true that both Prior and Cook might - should, even - have been adjudged leg before. But rather than blaming the umpires - good men having a bad day - they would be better directing their frustration elsewhere. We all know who decided that the DRS would not be utilised in this series.

Whatever happens on the last day - and it is good for Test cricket that this game has, at last, become a contest - it should not mask the failings of England earlier in the game. They have been overly reliant on individuals in Ahmedabad and, even if they escape, know they will have to improve if they are to challenge in this series.

They could do far worse than emulate their captain. As far as England are concerned, you cannot have too many Cooks.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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