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Cook's tenth Test century wasn't a pretty affair, but it was one of the most valuable of his 25-year-and-three-day life
December 28, 2009
Alastair Cook has worked with Graham Gooch since Essex first spotted him as a prodigiously talented schoolboy. So it's no surprise that he has taken on board one of Gooch's maxims after spending an intensive amount of time with his mentor in South Africa: "It's not how, but how many." Cook's tenth Test century wasn't a pretty affair, but it was one of the most valuable of his 25-year-and-three-day life.
His six-and-a-half-hour 118 has put England in a terrific position from which to apply real pressure to South Africa over the final two days. It was, without doubt, England's strongest day of the series and the fact that the foundation was laid by one of their struggling players will have made it even sweeter for the two Andys - Flower and Strauss. But especially so for Gooch, who is now back home, having completed his stint as England's batting consultant. He is man who still lives and breathes cricket, and his hard work with Cook has just paid off.
"It's more the stuff we were doing at Chelmsford before we came here - at 8am, an hour-and-a-half session with him three times a week," Cook said of his time with Gooch. "He's almost worked as hard at changing my technique as I have. But he puts in those hours and thinks nothing of it."
Since making 95 against Australia at Lord's in July, Cook had gone eight innings without a fifty, having averaged 24.66 in the Ashes. After a poor return in the first Test against South Africa, where he fell for 15 and 12, the pressure was growing for him to justify the seemingly impregnable hold he has as Strauss's opening partner. He has not once been dropped from the Test team in almost four years, and is already earmarked as a likely captain for the Bangladesh tour in February if Strauss is rested.
"It's not so much pressure; it's just the last few games the side has been playing really well and you feel like you're being carried by your team-mates," he said. "So it's nice to repay that. When you don't score runs in a few games, you do feel the pressure."
This was an innings of guts and determination over style and elegance, for which Cook deserves huge credit. When runs are hard to come by it can be easy to lose the battles of wills against the bowler. That was never truer than during the first hour of the second day when he managed just a single in 37 deliveries until Paul Harris relieved the tension.
"I was pleased with my discipline and that I didn't have a whoosh at one and then it all ends in tears," he said. "I didn't even flirt at one all morning, and that's good for my confidence."
The hard work slowly began to pay off as the bowlers grew tired and the pitch unresponsive under sunny skies. As lunch approached the runs started to flow with a pull off the impressive Morne Morkel being a particularly authoritative stroke.
Looking at Cook's career some may wonder what all the fuss has been about. Here is a player, who only turned 25 on Christmas Day, with a Test average over 40 and now with 10 hundreds in the bag. His numbers this year aren't too shabby, either, with 960 runs in 2009. But statistics don't give the full picture.
England have played more Tests than anyone else this year - 14 - and six of Cook's tons came in his first 17 matches. In the last two years, bowlers have exploited a weakness to full deliveries outside off stump and his 2009 tally is boosted by two hundreds against West Indies - one on a featherbed at Barbados and another against a dispirited bunch at Chester-le-Street. They were almost freebies. His effort here was anything but.
At the end of the last English season, Cook went back to Essex - he wasn't involved with the one-day squad following the Ashes - and, after viewing some footage during a game against Leicestershire, began making some adjustments to his game under the watchful eye of Gooch, including a Gooch-style static back lift.
"It's a slightly different trigger movement, a slightly different back-lift and slightly different alignment. That's three major things to change, and it takes a while for that to settle," he said. "It's nowhere near finished; it's a matter of grooving that and getting better at doing it. It was quite a good chance to almost experiment that last month of the season with Essex and try to change a few things and see if they work."
The changes brought back-to-back one-day hundreds and a place on the limited-overs leg of the South Africa trip. But after two unconvincing Twenty20 appearances (in the second of which he was captain after Paul Collingwood was injured) he suffered a bulging disc in his back and was left behind with the Performance Squad in Pretoria.
It may have been the best thing to happen to him. He made 70 during a practice match, instead of carrying the drinks for the one-day squad, and it also enabled him to spend extra time with Gooch before the pair rejoined the Test party in East London.
Emerging from a slump is a hugely satisfying moment for a player. It's an answer to the critics, a justification of your own belief, and a reward of the faith shown by the selectors. That they were ugly runs won't matter a jot, to either Cook or Gooch. However, when he fell for 118, there will have been one more Gooch phrase ringing in the ears. "Make it a daddy", meaning cash in on a century, and Cook has only passed 140 once. On this occasion it would be understandable if he was satisfied, but that's his next challenge if he really wants to emulate his mentor.
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