India v England, 3rd Test, Kolkata 3rd day December 6, 2012

Cook joins England's greats

The records continue to tumble for Alastair Cook during a tour where his standing on the world stage is reaching new levels

This was the day that Alastair Cook cemented his place among the greats of the game.

Statistics never tell the whole story, but they do bear repeating: Cook is now the youngest man to reach 7,000 Tests runs in the history of the game; he has scored more Test centuries than any other England player; and, having become the first man to score centuries in each of his first four Tests as captain only a week or so ago, he has now extended that sequence to five. And he does not seem to have expended a drop of sweat in the process.

The tale beyond the statistics is, arguably, more impressive. Cook has produced his three centuries this series, surely the best batting of his career, when his team most required it. Coming into this series, England looked fallible against spin and had been beset by internal unrest. But, by demonstrating that a calm head and occupation of the crease were the best methods of survival during the rout at Ahmedabad, he has instilled a belief into his side that had looked absent a few weeks ago. He is not just on the threshold of greatness. He is sitting with his feet up in his dining room demanding another cup of coffee.

He keeps improving, too. When he first came into the England side, he was regarded, despite a century on debut in Nagpur, as an unconvincing player of spin bowling. He spent many hours working on his game, however, not least against the Merlin spin-bowling machine, and gradually developed a method that worked for him.

His sweeping, once more of a nurdle, now has power and command. His driving, once reserved for the longest of half-volleys and the flattest of pitches, continues to increase in scope and grace and his footwork, once hesitant, now has purpose and confidence. The languid drive through extra-cover off Zaheer Khan and the straight six he skipped down the pitch and drove off R Ashwin, would have pleased David Gower.

He has lost none of his original qualities either: he still has the concentration of a security camera; he still leaves the ball well; he still cuts, pulls and works of his legs efficiently. But he has become, not just obdurate, but challenging for any fielding side to control. He has become a great batsman.

Some will baulk at that description. They will point out, with some justification, that Cook's feat of reaching 7,000 Test runs before his 28th birthday is as much a reflection of the modern fixture schedule as his talent. It is true that while it took Wally Hammond 18 years and 236 days to play the 131 innings he required for the milestone, it took Cook just six years and 279 days.

It is true, too, that Cook does not dominate like Viv Richards, he rarely times the ball like Rahul Dravid and he scarcely plays shots that make a crowd purr with delight like Brian Lara. He does not feel like a great player.

But perhaps feeling should have little to do with it. While batsmen are often judged on aesthetics, to do so disregards many other skills; skills such as resilience, concentration and, most importantly of all, run scoring. Based on those, perhaps more prosaic criteria, Cook has a strong case to be considered a great batsman. His is a classic case of substance prevailing over style.

While batsmen are often judged on aesthetics, to do so disregards many other skills; skills such as resilience, concentration and, most importantly of all, run scoring. Based on those, perhaps more prosaic criteria, Cook has a strong case to be considered a great batsman

Cook's success must also be attributed, in part at least, to England's selectors. Not so long ago, a player enduring the form Cook had in 2010 would have been dropped and, perhaps, never found their way back into the side. He had, after all, failed to pass 30 in eight successive innings and, just as importantly, looked all at sea outside off stump.

But the selectors persevered with him. They trusted in his character and in his work ethic. They trusted him to find a way to work out his problems. He rewarded their patience with a dogged century against Pakistan at The Oval and, since then, has scored 11 centuries in 28 Tests at an average of 68.53. He amassed 766 runs in the Ashes series of 2010-11 - among England batsmen, only Hammond (with 905 in 1928-29) has managed more - and he has now become the first man to score a century in each of his first five Tests as captain. Aged 27, the best should still be ahead of him.

More importantly, he has presented his team with a once-in-a-generation opportunity: the chance to beat India in India. No-one has done that since 2004 and England have not done it since 1984-85. By dismissing India for an under-par total, England gave themselves the opportunity to use the wicket before its anticipated deterioration. And, by taking that opportunity, they will aim to bat just once in this game. There is a long way to go, but the tide in the series has turned and is currently flowing strongly in England's direction.

Perhaps the key difference between these sides, however, is fitness. While England have been able to call on their top players to produce extra efforts when required - the bowling of James Anderson and Monty Panesar on the first day and the batting of Cook, in particular, on the second - India effectively have to nurse half their team through the day.

India's fielding veered between the ambivalent to the awful. It was not just that they dropped a crucial catch - Cook put down on 17 when Cheteshwar Pujara, usually at short-leg, suddenly found himself at slip while Virender Sehwag, the regular slip, found himself at cover - but that England were able to drop and run the ball with an ease that, at times, embarrassed some of the biggest names in Indian cricket.

Shown up for their age and their lack of athleticism, sharp singles became comfortable; long twos were turned into threes and overthrows were donated as the basic disciplines, such as backing up, deserted India. Nor was this an aberration. It was the norm. It wrecked any chance the bowlers had of building pressure and allowed a soft release for the batsmen.

This difference did not just show in the fielding. With the match to be shaped after lunch and Zaheer Khan producing an excellent spell that troubled both batsmen, India could have fought their way back into the game. Instead, MS Dhoni was obliged to rest Zaheer after just three overs and the opportunity slipped away.

A sports psychologist who has worked with players from both teams suggested there may be a cultural issue at play. In England, he reasoned, the emphasis is invariably on work ethic; in India there is a greater onus on rest. Perhaps both teams could learn from aspects of each other's approach, but India surely need to work harder on their fielding.

This is why defeat in this series might not prove to be such a disaster for India. While a side continues to make excuses for setbacks - injuries, unfamiliar conditions, doctored pitches et al. - they are failing to confront the real issues. Being forced into a period of reflection might do no harm.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on December 9, 2012, 20:54 GMT

    Have to say he's certainly leading by example so far and while this may be a moderate Indian attack as pointed out so vociferously by one poster he has managed to help turn a heavy defeat into a 10 wkt win which takes some character. Of course he's not an all time legend yet but he's certainly looking destined for greatness

  • John on December 9, 2012, 20:53 GMT

    @Arjya Prakash Dash on (December 07 2012, 11:43 AM GMT) Cook hanging around had nothing to do with sportsmanship. It seemed to me that he was advised to hang on there . You may remember in the last test when one of your players caught Jonny Bairstow illegally after the ball almost lodged in his helmet before coming out into his hands. Had Jonny (and it was his fault for not knowing the rules or whatever) realised this and stood his ground he'd have had the decision reversed. In the modern game often players are asked by the umpires to check for various things before they walk , but well done for nit picking and giving zero credit to Cook . Please publish this time

  • Randolph on December 9, 2012, 14:28 GMT

    So we are back to the Pakistan and South Africa series never happening, it appears. England would do well to notice that they have just won a battle of the minnows, with the real top two teams just completed a compelling and much more highly skilled contest in Australia. The real English fans already know this though and are terrified about the upcoming Ashes series.

  • Mark on December 9, 2012, 9:57 GMT

    I like it when you ask us not to compare Cook with Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman.

    Surely, you should not be mentioning the latter three in the same category as Sachin who over his career has been streets ahead of Ganguly and Laxman for certain and a lot more pleasing on the eye to watch than Dravid.

    I just hope Cook knows when to retire, unlike the Little Master who is well past his sell by date and holding on to a place through sentimentality and adoration rather than form and ability now. Retire on your own terms Sachin while the memories are fond and favourable rather than when it's too late and the memories are of a player in decline. Ponting went on a year too long and ever since Sachin got to 99 international tons he too has gone downhill.

  • Dummy4 on December 8, 2012, 16:43 GMT

    @Santander - I am sure you don't follow cricket that much. Sehwag makes test cricket more interesting coz he scores at a fast pace while Cook scores at a strike rate of less than 50. Which to my opinion boring. Sehwag is a modern cricketer while cook is from old school. The so called Indian greats scored many hundreds in your land buddy. Azar, Sachin and Ganguly scored againts your greats!What Sachin has achieved probably no one ever in England team can achieve for years to come. Sachin's away records easily trump over Lara, Ponting, Inzamam. He scores with an average of 52 outside subcontinent. Btw I am realy not sure if Cook wil be playing after 5 years from now. He may not cross 10000 runs also. He is yet to be an accomplished batsmen in ODIs. I just wanted to say lets not compare Cook with Sachin, Sehwag and Dravid. They are on top of the table whereas Cook is yet to be in that table.

  • rajat on December 8, 2012, 6:15 GMT

    I am not a big fan George Dobell's writings, but he has given some really important and true reasons for IND's pathetic performance over the last 18 months or so. This series,this game is not over yet but George is absolutely correct by questioning IND's work ethics.

  • I on December 8, 2012, 3:34 GMT

    Ah Dobell, still throwing the word "great" around willy-nilly, hoping it will stick somewhere on or around the England team. Wasn't this supposed to be one of the 5 "greatest" sides of all time? What about Broad and Bell? Weren't they estimated to rank amongst the pantheon of the "greats"? And Trott and Swann? In the world of Dobell, just who isn't "great"?

  • Stephen on December 8, 2012, 1:00 GMT

    @MaruthuDelft - But who went to the ground to watch Sachin bat on Thursday? Maybe 25,000. Only half full, does that mean he is not great as he didnt draw the public to watch? Cook is a great batsmen because of how he compares with every other batsman that's ever played the game. More runs than anyone who's ever played the game by his age, more centuries for England than any batsman ever (regardless of age) and a captain in India teaching India how the game is played. What a hero

  • Stephen on December 8, 2012, 0:36 GMT

    @Dark_Harlequin I think the reason Freddie is held im such high esteem in the UK is because we don't look at his statistics and make a judgement. We remember his heroic over in 2005 first taking Langer (3rd wicket in 4 balls) and then terrorising Ponting for the rest of the over and sending him back to the pavillion off the 7th ball to swing the ashes back our way. We also remember his 5-for in 2009 at Lords, bowling on one leg to put the Aussies back in place in the series and finally, his slinging arm to decimate the stumps while ponting looked on in horror in the 5th test at the Oval.. The goosebumps still appear thinking about it now. A true legend, not for the stats but for how he made us feel and most importantly, turning up when we needed him most.

  • Perry on December 8, 2012, 0:17 GMT

    Yeah right...Sachin is a god who has participated in possibly 1 or 2 match winning innings in his entire career of 25 years and gazillion of runs. This series alone gives Cook an edge over tendulkar as he has created an opportunity to beat India in India after 28 years. And inidan top order has more runs made on flat pitches in drawn test real exciting.

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