Different Questions

Sometime in the early years of this century - 2002, I think - I was driving with a friend to a rugby match in the Midlands. We spent much of our time talking about cricket, and I wondered aloud who the next 'truly great' English batsman would be.

At the time, with the England of Fletcher and Hussain just starting to emerge from years of disorganisation and inconsistency, the obvious choice, in retrospect, would have been Michael Vaughan. However, although I hadn't seen him play, I had already absorbed the hype which surrounded Ian Bell and suggested that he was the one.

Alastair Cook's name never entered my head. I knew of him but his first-class debut was still for the future and he was just too young to be a contender.

Scroll forward a few years, and, with Bell still flattering to deceive, Cook is an England player, and one or two images from his early Test career remain in the mind. The first comes from the initial stages of his first Test innings at Nagpur. Irfan Pathan drops short and Cook creams him through midwicket in a languid, dismissive manner which signifies a rare combination of talent and temperamental impregnability. He goes on to reach 60 and then passes a hundred in the second innings.

A few months later I'm at Lord's watching him play his first Test innings in England, batting at three after Strauss and Trescothick. With Cook past fifty, one of the Sri Lankan seamers, Maharoof or Kulasekara, drops short. With a field athlete's sureness of foot, Cook rocks back and caresses the ball through mid-on for four. It is a stroke which speaks of heady ability and resonates a sense of belonging. It appears obvious to me that he will be at the heart of the England team for years and years to come.

He has, of course. But, as for everybody, the game has become harder, more testing. By late in the English summer of 2010 his foothold in the side is loosening. He has problems around off-stump and he is regarded solely as a Test player. It is assumed that he cannot play one-day cricket.

He battles his way to a century in defeat at The Oval, then goes to Australia and makes 766 runs in the series as England humiliate Australia. When Andrew Strauss decides to retire from one-day cricket, Cook is appointed captain. Still, though, the runs come, and with a previously undiscerned fluency. Different questions begin to be asked. Instead of whether he is worth his place in the team, people wonder how just how good he is.

Cook is no genius in the manner of a Lara, or a Tendulkar, or a Ponting. And, among his England contemporaries, both Bell and Pietersen are blessed with greater gifts. He can be stylish and pleasing to the eye, but he relies more for his runs on patience which is unusual by modern standards and a mind which overcomes perceived obstacles as if they don't exist.

As I've written before, there is a quality that is at once both utilitarian and natural about Cook. While there are players who make the game look easier, there are few who give a stronger impression that it is what they were put on earth to do.

In the widest sense of the term he isn't a truly great player, but, as we enter the taut second half of England's summer, he currently looks as good, perhaps better, as anyone they have had in a very long time.

Cook is still only 26 years old. He, and his England side, will have many more days in the sun.

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