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Sam Cook: The England Test hopeful with a sub-20 bowling average

The Essex seamer on hat-trick balls, the Kookaburra and managing his England "obsession"

Essex's 254-run victory against Nottinghamshire in their Division One opener to the 2024 County Championship was the third time Sam Cook has pocketed a ball from both innings of a match in 75 first-class appearances. This time, however, he felt a little guilty.
"Do you keep a hat-trick ball?" Cook asks, having achieved the feat in the first innings at Trent Bridge. "It's not the same as a five-for. I'm sure someone will tell me if it's the done thing or not.
"Critch [Matt Critchley] grabbed the hat-trick ball, and I wasn't sure what the etiquette was; whether to hang on to it. It didn't quite sit right with me. But I do have both of them."
The hat-trick on day two - dismissing Lyndon James, Brett Hutton and Dillon Pennington in the first over of the second new ball to give him figures of 4 for 59 overall - was followed by 6 for 14 in the Notts second innings. It was Cook's 13th five-wicket haul and the fourth time he has taken 10 or more in a match. Two of those (Kent in 2019 and Northamptonshire in 2021) featured five-fors in both innings.
The novelty of the two balls added to the collection - curated by his mum in a box she keeps in his childhood bedroom - is that they are both Kookaburras. The ECB's experiment with the Australian ball, starting with the first two rounds of the season before returning later this summer, was a means to identify seamers capable of thriving without relying upon the lavish movement of the Dukes. A quarter of the way into this year's experiment, Cook has already set himself apart from the rest.
"I think the brand-new Kookaburra can sometimes give you more assistance from the seam," Cook says. "Obviously not for a particularly long period normally, but I found it pretty quickly and managed to maintain that for the whole second innings which was really pleasing.
"It feels different in the hand. The seam is completely different - it's a slightly wider seam. But the most obvious characteristic is it goes softer a lot quicker. I know the Dukes in the last couple of years have tended to go soft, but you still with the Duke expect to get 20 overs out of it in relatively in good shape, depending on conditions. With the Kookaburra I'd say you're lucky to get 10 overs out of it behaving like a new ball as such.
"The thing I've noticed with the Kookaburra is you've got to be a lot more specific with your seam presentation; it's got to be a lot more upright. You can't always get away with bowling big wobble seamers, which you can at times with the Dukes. Seam presentation has got to be pretty spot on to get something out of it."
Cook admits he was shaking off some early season rust in the first innings, but made amends in the second. At one point, he had figures of 5 for 9, with three batters (Haseeb Hameed, Matthew Montgomery and Hutton) bowled, along with Ben Slater caught behind and Calvin Harrison trapped lbw. Dillon Pennington's edge to first slip was number six.
"I've looked at the guys who are similar to my skillset playing international cricket, and I'm operating at the speeds they are. When I've played in T20 comps, I know the speed guns tend to be a bit skew-whiff but I'm not bowling at 75mph anymore"
Not that Cook, 26, needed this Dukes-less round to state his case for higher honours. A record of 275 first-class dismissals at 19.48 - 261 for Essex across Division One and the Bob Willis Trophy - and a sub-20 average in each of the last four summers already have Cook on England's radar.
His aptitude with the Kookaburra is informed by the winters with England Lions, along with previous experience in Australian grade cricket. With the blessings of and England selector Luke Wright and recently-departed men's performance director Mo Bobat, Cook opted against the Lions tour of India at the start of the year for stints in the T10 with Chennai Braves and SA20 with Joburg Super Kings. Nevertheless, breaking into Ben Stokes' Test side remains his top priority.
"I'd still absolutely love to play for England. This winter, I probably appeared to have turned attention more to white-ball [cricket]. But that was more through trying to experience new conditions and playing in South Africa with an eye to playing for England in the future.
"What I've tried to do, though, my conscious effort since last season, is not become too obssessed with it. I've probably become too consumed with the obsession of wanting to play for England and gone away from what I do really well. That's something I've tried to change, more from the fact that I think if I do what I do really well for long enough, that opportunity will come. Just to trust in that and not waver from what's made me successful in the last few years.
"Overriding that is: I'd still love to play for England one day."
Will the call come this summer? Stuart Broad's retirement, Ollie Robinson's disappointing India tour, and uncertainty over Josh Tongue's fitness seemingly present an opportunity for Cook with three Tests each against West Indies and Sri Lanka to come. Though skilful, like Robinson, he is not as tall. And he is not as quick as Tongue, primarily operating in the low eighties. Though he is working to raise his speeds, he acknowledges there is only so much he can do without compromising what has made him so successful.
"I think if anyone had the answer to that question I'd pay them a lot of money," Cook replies when asked how he would go about adding speed. "I know there's never going to be an increase of 10mph in my own pace.
"But it's trying to get the most out of what I can physically do, whether it's been more focus in the gym on power and explosive exercises rather than bulk, heavy weights. It's moving weights as quick as I can, focus on sprinting, that kind of stuff. I'm trying to maximise the pace side.
"Rhythm is a big thing for me. My fastest spells have always been when I've been the most controlled, the most in rhythm and everything clicks from there.
"I've looked at the guys who are similar to my skillset playing international cricket, and I'm operating at the speeds they are. When I've played in T20 comps, I know the speed guns tend to be a bit skew-whiff in some of those, but I'm not bowling at 75mph anymore."
For what it is worth, those who have faced Cook recently have noticed a few extra yards. Clips of cartwheeling stumps on social media certainly won't harm his case. Nor will building on a strong start to the summer.
Essex were the only side across both divisions to emerge with a win from from the opening set of fixtures. Though they are sitting tight for news of a potential 16-point deduction after opener Feroze Khushi's bat failed an on-field dimensions check on day three, for now at least, the 20 they have accrued puts them comfortably ahead of the Division One pack.
Building on last year's second-place finish, 20 points behind Surrey, looked tricky following Dan Lawrence's move to the Kia Oval and Alastair Cook's retirement. But Dean Elgar and Jordan Cox - who scored 80 and 84, respectively, in their debut knocks - already seem adequate replacements in the pursuit of a ninth title.
Cook, who has two County Championships to his name, along with 2020's Bob Willis Trophy, firmly believes Essex can be top of the pile come September. Playing defending champions Surrey twice this campaign, having only done so once in 2023 due to the ham-fisted nature of a 14-game season in a 10-team league, is extra incentive to a team with strong red-ball pedigree.
"It's a real statement that we're not going away and we want to be keeping up the top there," Cook says.
"To play Surrey twice this year, we're really excited about it. Partly, that's another frustration with the schedule - I don't see how you can have a Division One where you're not playing everyone twice and not having the best teams against each other twice. [This year] we can show when we go toe-to-toe with them that we're serious contenders."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo