Chetan Narula reflects on England captain Alastair Cook's efforts during the opening Test between India and England in Ahmedabad. He is covering the series for Cricket World in India and is also featuring in regular podcasts.
There are two ways to look at Alastair Cook’s batting. One, in this era of slam-bang cricket, it is enough to forcefully convert any Test doubters into ready T20 fans. Such is the non-glorified manner of his run-scoring; and two, for any five-day aficionados still remaining, it is a super-effective manner of scoring runs, irrespective of conditions.
It is the second point which describes Cook’s existence at the head of England’s batting order, more so after the departure of Andrew Strauss. The latter always had a couple more gears to add to his batting, runs never trickled from his bat. With Cook it is precisely that and even in 2012, when strike-rates in world cricket are climbing quicker than oil prices, he has denied himself the knowledge of third gear.
Graham Gooch, England’s batting coach, was effusive in his praise of Cook. "Batsmen are known to score hundreds. Most of them go out and have a good day, when luck favours them and shots are flowing, everything goes their way.
"Then there are those few who fight it out and make hundreds. Cook made a hundred (referring to his 176 runs off 374 balls), he made it happen."
Take a look at the wagon wheel for Cook's first and second innings. It is highly intriguing that he hasn’t scored many runs - and no boundaries - down the ground. The maximum he has got is ones or twos off nudges, playing in the V.
There are two things to be pointed out here. First, he was out in the first innings, attempting to drive the ball, edging and ballooning to first slip. And two, he blocked that shot out completely in the second innings, a move that prolonged his stay at the crease by an entire day.
It is not that playing down the ground is a weakness in his strokeplay. In fact it is his temperamental strength that he cut that shot out completely given the conditions and opposition bowling.
But that is just one part. The other is his footwork and his ability to play off the back foot which allowed him to watch the ball until the last moment, countering both spin and reverse swing for nearly two days at the crease.
It was important because from day three onwards, the pitch had slowed down considerably. In the end, when he did get out in the second innings, it wasn’t because he was beaten by spin or swing. That delivery from Pragyan Ojha kept low whilst turning in, forcing out a gap between bat and pad.
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"Technically I consider this as my best knock, given the match situation and conditions. However, we couldn’t save the Test. So, my 230-innings at Brisbane versus Australia is still my best effort, because we saved that match," he reflected in the post-match press conference.
Cook’s two innings fittingly put the rest of England batting under the microscope. There was always a question mark over their ability against spin, especially after poor Test series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. That they didn’t even contribute 100 runs in two attempts at Ahmedabad is a statistic worthy of some head-scratching.
More than that though, the manner in which their top batsmen (barring Matt Prior) gave away their wickets is what causes grave concern. It seems more of a mental block than inability to apply themselves on a wicket that continued to slow down as the match progressed.
Ian Bell is the major culprit here. What was he thinking lofting the first ball he faced in the match? As Prior pointed out later, he is good at putting away balls and attacking to create gaps in the field. However on a pitch that afforded turn and with your team needing to bat long, it isn’t prudent to come in and start attacking, without giving due consideration to the conditions and bowling.
In that light, maybe Kevin Pietersen was a bit better that he was calculative in his attacking stroke-play in both innings. The problem with him is that as soon as he comes to the crease, India will bring on Ojha and Yuvraj Singh.
For someone who has gotten out 25 times to left-arm spinners, that is not good news. That he has not been able to sort out his troubles so late in his career provides an insight into the fickle mind of an otherwise immaculate cricketer. If he, with his massive ego and ability, cannot tide over his shortcomings, the others, like Bell, will find it tougher.
As the pitch slowed down, it got tougher for Indian bowlers to take wickets and Ravichandran Ashwin’s struggles in the second innings were ample proof. When England sit down to reflect on this Test loss, the top order’s failure to overcome their mental gremlins of playing a turning track will weigh heavy on their minds. It is a Test match they could have drawn. Instead they lost by nine wickets.
© Cricket World 2012
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