How do you measure the value of a contemporary English seamer? Their currency has been debased in light of the Test team's recent struggles - so much so that, at Taunton last week, Craig Overton's stunning haul of 13 for 87 for Somerset against Essex somehow read more like a postscript to his England ambitions than a mission statement. It's all very well hoovering up when the going is good, the naysayers will say, but can you show any teeth on a flat deck in Antigua?
It's a concern that nags away at the very best of England's county hopefuls, not least Overton's opposite number in that agonising one-wicket defeat. Sam Cook's figures for Essex at Taunton were less exceptional but all the more critical to his county's first victory of the season - most particularly his first-day haul of 3 for 17 in 15 overs, as he hounded Somerset's top six on his relentless full length and sent them spinning to a first-innings total of 109 from which there would be no recovery.
At the age of 24, Cook has quietly taken over from another of England's nearly-men, Jamie Porter, as the premier seamer in the most decorated red-ball team of the decade. His coronation (such as it was) arguably took place at Chelmsford in the final match of the 2021 summer, when he claimed the remarkable match figures of 10 for 41 - nine of them on the first day alone as Northamptonshire were routed by an innings before 11am on day two.
And yet, as if to prove that such performances have lost their ability to impress, within a month of that match, England had announced their Lions squad for the tour to Australia, and Cook's name (initially at least) was nowhere to be seen. Despite a season's haul of 58 wickets at 14.43 (and an overall tally of 107 at 17.08 since the start of 2019), the snub seemed to suggest that his card had been marked: an energetic and skilful medium-pacer, no doubt, but some way short of the out-and-out quick that the Test team was crying out for.
"Yeah, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed not to be to be included," Cook told ESPNcricinfo. "I felt like had a really good year, my rhythm felt good all year and I put some good numbers down. I don't think I could have done more, and especially in that last game [against Northants], I felt like it all came together. Ever since I started at Essex, I've felt like I probably deserve more returns than I've had, so last year it was really pleasing to hit the 50-wicket target. That's something I've had in mind for a while."
For reasons that the ECB never entirely made clear, Cook's omission was rectified some weeks after the original announcement, and he did make the trip after all - shadowing the Ashes squad through a damp series preamble in Queensland and bowling eight wicketless overs in an otherwise rain-ruined warm-up fixture.
But by the end of the winter, the sense still pervaded that he's not quite the right fit. Of the four uncapped seamers in that intra-squad match, Cook alone would be omitted from the subsequent "Test" against Australia A; of the others, Saqib Mahmood and Matt Fisher would go on to debut in the Caribbean, while Warwickshire's Liam Norwell has emerged, since Mark Wood's elbow injury, as the next man in line.
The common factor for all of those favoured bowlers - and one that will not have been lost on Cook - is their ability to push up towards 90mph. And yet, while he remains realistic about the upper limits of his pace capabilities, Cook still clings to the advice he received from Ed Smith, the former national selector, in 2021, who told him that any bowler with two out of three facets - pace, accuracy and skill - could still have a place in England's plans.
"The communication I had when I was around the Lions squad was that 'we feel like you're quick enough, otherwise you wouldn't be here'," he says. "I think I've definitely added pace to my game, because when I started out, you could probably say my pace was an issue. But then there's been plenty bowlers that have been extremely successful at Test cricket that aren't 90mph bowlers."
And to that end, he looks to the example of England's breakthrough performer of the past 12 months. Notwithstanding the fitness issues that clouded Ollie Robinson's tour of the Caribbean, a haul of 39 wickets at 21.28 in his first nine appearances serves as overdue proof that there's still a place for artful seam bowling at the highest level.
"I've taken huge confidence from that," Cook says. "I'd be kidding if I said I'm going to be a 90mph bowler, because that's not what I am. But you look at Mohammad Abbas, Vernon Philander, Ollie Robinson now … it proves that those skills that are favourable in county cricket can be successful at Test level.
"That's something that inspires me. Seeing someone who is probably a more skills-based bowler, it's really encouraging and gives you that bit of boost that, yeah, what I'm doing week in, week out can work. Robbo has been phenomenal, but I'm not surprised at all, because his skill levels are that high. So they're the guys that I'm trying to be as good as, if not better than, and trying to follow that sort of path."
For that reason, Cook is determined to see only the positives of an otherwise frustrating winter - most particularly the opportunity, in spite of the bleak outlook in Australia, to rub shoulders with England's Test elite and glean first-hand wisdom that might not otherwise have come his way.
"For me, I found it a fantastic experience," he says. "Obviously there were challenges, mainly with the weather, but once we came out of the bubble phase and got to Brisbane, I learned an awful lot about the England set-up. Unless you're involved in a Test squad, it's a one-in-a-lifetime experience to see the prep that goes into an Ashes."
In particular, Cook believes, it is the use of the fabled wobble-seam delivery that could help propel his game to the next level. It is a weapon that James Anderson reputedly learned from Pakistan's Mohammad Asif in 2010, and which he in turn has since seeded among his England colleagues - not least his oldest ally Stuart Broad, with whom Cook has now been discussing the method.
"I chatted a lot to Stuart Broad about how he bowled with it," Cook says. "Obviously you're still looking to hit a good area with the new ball, and trying to shape that, because the Kookaburra doesn't swing for as long and the seam gets softer quicker, but all of those skills are concentrated a little bit more in Australia. There's an element of reverse swing, and using your bouncer, and adjusting your length, and that just comes with experience.
"I've had done a couple of winters in grade cricket in Australia, but playing with and against the best every day at training is a totally different experience. I learned so much and just tried to take in as much as I could from how they went about it. Obviously I would have liked to have played more cricket on the trip, but the weather put a bit of a stop to that. But I took a lot from it, and they are all things I'm going to try and implement this season."
Two matches into the new Championship campaign, Cook is already settling into a familiar pattern at the helm of Essex's attack. He has picked up seven wickets at 16.00 to date, but in many ways, it was his performance in adversity on a flat deck at Chelmsford that said more about his progress than his five-wicket display in the Taunton victory. In a relentless Kent innings of 581 - underpinned by hundreds for Ben Compton and Jordan Cox - Cook was the stand-out seamer with figures of 2 for 63 in 32 overs, and the only man in the innings with an economy rate of less than 2.
"There is no better feeling as a seamer than when you get into one of those spells where you feel like every ball you can take a wicket," Cook says. "But I have that mentality whatever, even on a flat pitch or if the ball is soft, I genuinely believe that I can take a wicket every ball, and then sometimes that does transpire into one of those spells when you genuinely do feel like you can get a wicket every ball.
"A lot of it is mindset, a lot of it is rhythm, but last season, my average was probably the most pleasing thing for me, because at the end of the day you want to take wickets for as little runs as possible."
Whatever transpires for Cook, there seems little doubt that his skiddy, wicket-to-wicket methods will be central to Essex's bid for yet more silverware this season, after the relative disappointment of their second-division crown last summer, having claimed either the Championship or the Bob Willis Trophy in three of the preceding four seasons.
"A big focus at Essex is how focused on the team success we are, and sometimes if you're putting the team first, your individual performances might not get noticed as much," Cook says. "But that's the selfless nature of our squad. It shows how far we've come as a team, that even though we won Division Two very comfortably last season, we weren't satisfied with that.
"Because of the format last year, we had a couple of games where we didn't play our best, and we were out of it. This year, it feels like it's ready to go, it's a proper season. It's back to what we were familiar with before Covid. So everyone's excited and our goal, as always, is to win that Championship."
Winning a chance with England would be nice too. But while Cook waits for the call that may or may not come, he can take heart from the recent displays of another pillar of Essex's recent red-ball dominance. Simon Harmer's return to Test action for South Africa against Bangladesh yielded 13 wickets at 15.15 in a 2-0 series win, and further proof that the gulf to international cricket need not be as vast as England's recent travails would have you believe.
"It's another sort of confidence boost that county cricket is a good indicator for whether you will do well in Test cricket or not," Cook says. "If eventually, hopefully, I do get the opportunity to represent England, it's more confidence that you do deserve to be there, and that the performances that you've put in in county cricket do still stand you in good stead."