Another epic from conquering Cook
It wasn't much fun being an Englishman in Australia on the last Ashes tour in 2006-07, but at least the Barmy Army landed a blow for Blighty with the best sledge of the trip - a mocking line of T-shirts bearing the legend: "Captain Cook only stopped for a ****". On the back, there was a picture of the skipper perched on a dunny in Botany Bay, apparently intending to move onto pastures new once he'd done what he had to do.
Nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, the descendants of that expedition show no sign of moving on, and neither did the latest English-born Cook to leave his mark on the country's east coast. Much like the T-shirt version, Australia had expected Alastair Cook's visits in this series to be brief and perfunctory, as befitting an Ashes career average of 26.21 in 10 previous Tests. But at the back-end of a campaign that began with him matching his previous tally Down Under in a single Test at the Gabba, Cook has marched on to conquer some of the most extraordinary peaks in the game.
By the time he snicked off to Shane Watson for a monumental 189, Cook had batted for 36 hours and 11 minutes in the series, or the equivalent of six full days out of the 19-and-a-half that have taken place to date. No Englishman has ever spent longer at the crease in a Test series, and only Wally Hammond, who scored 905 runs on the Ashes tour of 1928-29 has amassed more runs than Cook's current tally of 766. With a lead of 208 and two days of the Test still to come, it's not impossible that he'll get one last opportunity to push on towards the elusive 800 mark - which has been passed on just nine occasions in Test history, and only six times by a player not called Don Bradman.
"It hasn't sunk in yet, well, it has a little bit," said Cook, who flies back to England at the conclusion of this match, while his team-mates press on to play the one-day series. "When I get home and it's cold in a week's time, and you're on the farm walking the dog, you think actually, yeah, I've achieved something special. But it would be even better if we play well for the next two days and get the right result."
Like his fellow left-handed opener Graeme Smith, who stunned England with consecutive innings of 277 and 254 at Edgbaston and Lord's in 2003, Cook will never be a player to please the purists. He's a functional entity with a manufactured technique, and when his mechanics let him down - such as occurred in England last summer - he can look both ugly and horribly ineffective, a combination of factors that can leave him closer to the chopping block than a pretty practitioner such as a Gower or a Lara.
As far as the England management are concerned, however, Cook is a banker, and has been ever since he defied jet-lag, debutant nerves and India's spinners to rack up a century on debut at Nagpur in March 2006, when he had only recently turned 21. The faith in his temperament has superseded all qualms about his technique, and it's remarkable to think that he has now amassed 1022 first-class runs on the current tour of Australia, even though he began the tour with a dreadful pair of innings against Western Australia at the WACA.
He made 5 and 9 in that game to reawaken the doubts about his Test berth, but responded with a century at Adelaide in the second warm-up match at Adelaide, and has scarcely looked back since. "I could only have dreamt about this six or seven weeks ago, especially after that first warm-up game," said Cook. "I didn't get any runs and this looked a long way away, so I can't really believe what I've achieved and what the side has achieved. It's been a good couple of months but there are two days of hard work left."
Throughout his latest epic, in which he matched Michael Vaughan's feat of three centuries in Australia in 2002-03, Cook's watchfulness outside off stump was matched by a keen appreciation of his scoring opportunities, particularly off the toes whenever Australia's seamers overpitched, and through midwicket and point respectively on the regular occasions they banged it in too short. He rode his luck on two notable occasions, on 46 when a no-ball referral earned him a second chance, and again on 99 when Phil Hughes failed to scoop a low chance at short leg. But Australia found him to be a roadblock once again, as their faint hopes of saving the series were effectively thwarted.
Given that Cook's game is built on the solidity of his character, the numbers that he has racked up in the past eight months are extraordinary. Going into the second innings of the Pakistan Test at The Oval back in August, he had limped to 106 runs in eight innings at the puny average of 13.25, and was one false stroke from being dropped from the side (if only for the fourth and final Test at Lord's, because his mental strength would have been sorely missed at the Gabbatoir). Typically, he responded with a gutsy 110, and has now made 886 runs in his last nine innings, at the extraordinary average of 110.75.
"I had a tough summer, it was obviously well documented, but when you score runs people tend to leave you alone," said Cook. "So it was important in that second game at Adelaide, where I scored that hundred in the second innings, I just thought to myself I can score runs in Australia. It gave me that little bit of confidence that you need, and that time in the middle to tell myself that my gameplan does work if I execute it well. It's worked well so far this trip."
The exact reason for Cook's transformation still eludes him, however, but all that matters to him is that he enjoys the sensation of being in the form of his life. "Form comes and goes, and I couldn't hit the middle of the bat six months ago," he said. "But that's the secret of sport, isn't it, why form comes and goes as much as it can do, I don't know. But you keep working hard and enjoy it when you do do well, because there were some pretty dark times last summer and I'm sure there will be in my career at some other time."
One key reason may be his supreme fitness. As he admitted at Adelaide during the second of his back-to-back hundreds, Cook has been blessed with a physique that hardly sweats even in the most extreme temperatures. What is more, England as a squad have adopted an exhaustive regime under their former rugby-playing fitness trainer, Huw Bevan, in which they practice batting while already knackered. Though he admitted it wasn't always fun, Cook conceded that the benefits were plain to see.
"There's the modern game, you have to be fit to bat for a long time, it's not to look good on the beach unfortunately," he said. "I remember turning up to Perth and before I'd even batted for the first time on tour I had to do a pre-fatigue session. That's how seriously we were taking it, and I was pretty grumpy at the time because all I wanted to do was bat. But little things like that adds on, and you get rewards later on.
"You work hard physically, you work hard on the mental side of the game, but when you're in this form it all happens quite easily," he added. "Suddenly, you bat for an hour and you don't realise you've batted for an hour, whereas last summer when I was desperately trying to bat for ten minutes, it felt like a lifetime. You just get in that rhythm, that tempo, and tell yourself not to make mistakes. When you're not worried about your technique or anything else, that makes it a lot easier. Physically you get a little bit tired, but you're rather be a little bit tired and get a hundred."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.