A Kind of Greatness

I started writing this blog in the summer of 2006, just a few months after Alastair Cook made his Test debut.

I've missed a few Tests since then. He hasn't missed any.

Amid all the plaudits, and the veiled and often not-so-veiled criticisms, heaped on Cook after his epic this week, that's something worth remembering. The last Test match played by England in which he didn't participate took place in Mumbai in March 2006. It's remembered for different reasons (the mind's eye turns readily to the desperate sight of Monty Panesar circling under the Dhoni steeplers), but, since then, whenever and wherever England have played a Test match, Cook has been there. Usually batting.

I've grappled before with the thorny question of where Cook stands in the wider lexicon of English batsmanship, and, for someone who's scored so many runs, and so many centuries, assessing him is more difficult and entails more ambivalence than it should.

You can start by doing this. Think of any English batsman. Cook has scored more runs and more centuries than anyone you can think of. Not necessarily at a better average, and sometimes against bowling attacks which don't measure up to those faced by many players of the past, but the runs still have to be scored. Cook has done this in every country and in every type of pitch, match and climatic environment.

His cardinal virtues are so widely known that they hardly need further enumeration. He has unnatural levels of patience, resilience, physical fitness and self-discipline. He never gets injured, he barely sweats, he never appears to age. These are the things which set him apart in ways that the fundamentals of his batting don't.

With the exception of yesterday, he always goes in early. He leaves. He defends. He leaves. He defends. He leaves. He drives, rarely trusting himself to push the bat all the way through the line, but covering any movement, playing impeccably straight, and with beautiful natural timing. If the bowler is then prompted to drop short he will cut, and he will pull. Then he will leave and defend some more, lumbering regular singles with a gait which can seem in keeping with his alternative existence as a farmhand. In time, the bowlers tire and the runs pile up. At the other end, batsmen, usually his shifting and uncertain cast of opening partners, come and go. It is never sexy, it is in many ways old-fashioned, but, in its own way, it is brilliant and uplifting.

Away from the crease he gives the impression of being a reserved and conventional man. The most interesting and unusual thing about him is his batting. In the age of Twenty20, where speed of scoring and six-hitting is all, his approach is different and distinctive.

Wherever you look there are players who can clear the ropes at will. Could they bat for 14 hours in one innings? Could they heck.

Of course Cook can be criticized. Anyone can, especially with the benefit of a litany of grievances which paint him as one of the bad guys in a saga that is nuanced beyond the understanding of anyone who wasn't intimately involved, and with the benefit of Twenty20 hindsight.

Too much time can be wasted trying to assess the relative merits of players with different backgrounds, different approaches, different gifts. Cook may not quite be the type of player conventionally held to be 'great', and he is certainly no genius, but what he does is so far from easy that it bestows on him a kind of greatness. Nobody else, certainly among contemporary English players can do what he does. New players come into the England side to partner Cook every few matches, and none of them can do it. You can be sure that they would like to, but they cannot. In most cases they probably can't even imagine themselves doing it.

Batting at any level of the game is a hard business. A batsman is only ever one good ball or one poor shot away from failure. This uncertainty affects bodies and minds. Try going through ten years of that at the very highest level of the game, some of which you have spent failing, and you will be a mess. To be sane, and to be capable of doing what Cook has just done, perhaps you need, as I've said before about Cook, to be doing what you were put on earth to do.

This is someone who was born to bat.

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