June 22, 2012

Cook's stunning rise in ODIs

Once thought to be too slow for the format, Alastair Cook has transformed himself into one of the best ODI openers going around today

At first glance, nothing about Alastair Cook suggests that he could be in for a great ODI career as an opening batsman. Though he has a reasonable range of strokes, Cook's forte has been his ability to bat long periods with unflagging concentration, a skill that doesn't count for much in 50-over cricket. In Test cricket, he scores his runs mostly through pushes and nudges - not the free-stroking batsman you'd want at the top of the order in a format that places a premium on quick scoring.

In the first three seasons of his ODI career, Cook's performances were in line with this analysis: his urgency at the start was well below par, especially in an age when openers are expected to make full use of the fielding restrictions. Splitting his 47-match ODI career into two halves, in the first 23 he scored at a strike rate of less than 70. His average of 30.52 during this period was reasonable, but at the end of 2008, England's selectors decided that Cook didn't fit into their ODI plans: from the beginning of 2009 till the middle of 2011, Cook played only three of England's 56 ODIs, as they tried as many as nine other openers alongside Andrew Strauss during this period. Only two of them - Ravi Bopara and Craig Kieswetter - played more than ten innings each, but neither made the job his own. Bopara's stats were very similar to Cook's - an average of 29.45 and a strike rate of 69.97 - while Kieswetter was more aggressive, but inconsistent. During this period, Cook played three games in Bangladesh in 2010 and did well, averaging 52 at a strike rate of 90. However, he then missed out on the ODIs at home that season and in Australia, and the World Cup in 2010-11.

Since his return to ODI cricket in 2011, though, Cook has been an absolute revelation, scoring six fifties and four centuries in 21 innings; clearly, his outstanding Test form has given him the confidence to play more freely in ODIs too. Overall, in 24 innings, including the tour to Bangladesh in 2010, he has averaged more than 54 at a strike rate of 91.47, a far cry from his stats in his previous 23 innings.

Alastair Cook's ODI career
Period Matches Runs Average Strike rate 100s/ 50s
Till Dec 2008 23 702 30.52 68.15 1/ 3
Jan 2010 onwards 24 1191 54.13 91.47 4/ 8
Career 47 1893 42.06 81.17 5/ 11

One key difference between Cook the ODI batsman in these two phases has been his ability to play fewer dot balls over the last couple of years. It's true that his boundary percentage has also increased - and all four of his ODI sixes have been struck in his last 24 matches - but the bigger difference has been the decrease in dot balls. From a very high 62.52% in his first 23 innings, it has gone down to less than 50%. Some of it, admittedly, is also because he has survived the Powerplay overs more often in the last two years - batting in the middle overs has obviously allowed him to rotate strike more freely and reduce his dot-ball percentage.

Scoring patterns for Alastair Cook in ODIs
Period Runs/ Balls Run rate 4s/ 6s Boundary % Dot-ball %
Till Dec 2008 702/ 1030 4.08 77/ 0 43.87 62.52
Jan 2010 onwards 1191/ 1302 5.48 134/ 4 47.02 49.00

You'd think that batting against spin might have been his bigger problem in his early days, but fast bowlers had far more success against him during his first couple of years. Before December 2008, he was dismissed 20 times by fast or medium-fast bowlers, and his run rate against them was only 3.99. Since 2010, his stats against pace have improved dramatically.

Cook v pace and spin in ODIs
Period Pace-dismissals Average Run rate Spin-dismissals Average Run rate
Till Dec 2008 20 30.15 3.99 2 49.50 4.75
Jan 2010 onwards 11 62.63 5.68 10 50.20 5.23

Cook's remarkable numbers mean he is easily among the best ODI openers going around today. Among batsmen who have opened the innings at least 20 times since the beginning of 2010, Cook's average has been bettered only by one - South Africa's Hashim Amla. Amla and Cook are the only openers to average more than 50 during this period. The fact that nine of the ten openers in the list below have a strike rate of more than 88 also indicates how high the benchmarks have been raised for openers. Cook has risen to the challenge, and all these runs will only add to his confidence in future matches.

Highest averages for openers in ODIs since Jan 2010 (Qual: 20 innings)
Batsman ODIs Runs Average Strike rate 100s/ 50s
Hashim Amla 35 2033 61.60 95.67 8/ 12
Alastair Cook 24 1191 54.13 91.47 4/ 8
Gautam Gambhir 25 1132 49.21 89.91 3/ 6
Andrew Strauss 28 1319 47.10 93.28 3/ 9
Sachin Tendulkar 23 1032 46.90 92.30 4/ 3
Shane Watson 49 2046 44.47 97.15 2/ 16
Paul Stirling 30 1290 43.00 99.53 4/ 5
Virender Sehwag 29 1156 41.28 116.53 3/ 2
Martin Guptill 32 1144 40.85 82.48 1/ 9
Tillakaratne Dilshan 70 2613 40.82 88.93 8/ 10

Apart from Cook, Strauss has also contributed mightily at the top of the order in the last two and a half years, averaging 47.10 at a strike rate of more than 93 in 28 innings. (Click here for a look at England's openers during this period.) More recently, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell have shone in that position as well, ensuring that at least one England opener has scored a century in the last six ODIs.

Since 2010, England's openers have averaged almost 43 runs per dismissal, and more than 47 runs per partnership - both of these are the second-highest among all teams. South Africa's openers have a slightly higher average, but a lower average stand, while Sri Lanka's average partnership is higher, despite a lower average for their openers. In the last year, England's openers have had even more incredible numbers - they average 51.32, with seven hundreds in 44 innings. New Zealand's openers have a higher average, but that's almost entirely due to high scores against Zimbabwe.

Opening batting and partnerships averages for each team in ODIs since Jan 2010
Team ODIs Average Strike rate 100s/ 50s Ave stand 100/ 50 stands
South Africa 39 43.28 87.51 9/ 17 42.38 1/ 16
England 53 42.92 92.51 11/ 27 47.67 7/ 13
Sri Lanka 74 40.04 84.01 15/ 26 49.95 10/ 15
Australia 66 36.85 84.99 5/ 32 42.29 7/ 15
India 72 35.15 88.54 10/ 19 34.04 3/ 16
New Zealand 44 32.65 84.73 4/ 16 39.20 4/ 7
Pakistan 64 32.63 74.41 7/ 24 39.68 6/ 11
West Indies 52 30.88 76.65 4/ 19 35.20 3/ 10
Bangladesh 51 30.10 75.00 2/ 23 28.23 1/ 9
Zimbabwe 40 26.52 70.73 3/ 12 25.70 3/ 5

All these runs in the last couple of years mean Cook's average is third-highest among the 25 England batsmen who have scored more than 1500 ODI runs. Jonathan Trott leads the list, while Pietersen, who has already retired from the format, is marginally ahead of Cook (42.51 to Cook's 42.06). Given Cook's outstanding run, though, it's very likely that he'll move even higher on that list pretty soon.

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter