Do Alastair Cook's 10,000 runs qualify him as a great?
Alastair Cook raises his bat after scoring his 10,000th Test run
A.J. Liebling wrote about boxing in the 1950s and 1960s for The New Yorker just about as well as anyone has ever written about any sport. He wasn’t a sports journalist per se, and indeed wrote about many other facets of life, but his essays on the sport have marked him out as perhaps the finest sportswriter of them all.
Because Liebling was not a traditional sports reporter he played by different rules. He often wrote about the lead-up and aftermath of fights more than the actual bouts themselves and included such detail that, sitting in Dorset this week on holiday reading some of his work, I felt transported to Madison Square Gardens in 1950s New York City.
Liebling also had no crux with showing favouritism for a fighter. Some sports stars catch your eye and enter your heart and Liebling found no fault with that and no need to create some faux equilibrium as many writers do now to show their neutrality. Why be neutral when human nature dictates that you will have favourites?
All-time record Test run-scorers
Sachin Tendulkar (India) - 15,921
Ricky Ponting (Australia) - 13,378
Jacques Kallis (South Africa) - 13,289
Rahul Dravid (India) - 13,288
Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka) - 12,400
Brian Lara (West Indies) - 11,953
Shivnarine Chanderpaul - (West Indies) - 11,867
Mahela Jayawardene (Sri Lanka) - 11,814
Allan Border (Australia) - 11,174
Steve Waugh (Australia) - 10,927
Sunil Gavaskar (India) - 10,122
Alastair Cook (England) - 10,042
Alastair Cook is a favourite of mine just as heavyweight fighter Joe Louis was Liebling’s. Having just scored his 10,000th Test match run, becoming just the 12th man to achieve the feat, my devotion, if that’s not too strong a word, to Cook has only increased. He is the player of my youth, as much as Boycott was for my father.
Sachin Tendulkar, India’s sweetheart and saviour for twenty years or so, is nearly 6,000 runs ahead of Cook at the top of the all-time Test run-scoring chart but at the age of only 31, the Englishman, still the fittest member of his side with an excellent injury record, has time on his side. He will pass Tendulkar before the end of his career.
But while Cook may be a favourite of mine, he is not everyone’s favourite player judging by the reaction of some on social media. The Kevin Pietersen affair has tainted the image of Cook in some quarters, although not for me, and it seems this is addling the brains of those who now say Cook is not a true great of the Test match game.
We shouldn’t forget that those who denigrate Cook on social media seem to me to be a minority of cricket fans. Piers Morgan, Pietersen’s friend and most vociferous cheerleader, has instigated most of the hubbub on Twitter for what he sees as Cook’s treachery in removing Pietersen from the side after the awful Ashes showing in 2013/14.
Being Pietersen's friend, Morgan’s stance is understandable, and his profile has given the issue, and those who agree with him, more prominence than it might otherwise have had. Regardless of what you think about Pietersen - and that period in English cricket did little credit to anyone - to use that as reason to look down at Cook’s achievements is churlish.
I also believe the vast majority of the cricket loving public in England have high regard for Cook. In the summer of 2014, his form had deserted him, Sri Lanka had beaten England at home for the first time ever and it seemed a matter of time before the Essex opener resigned. It wouldn’t have shocked anyone if he had and Mike Atherton, a level-headed and fair observer of the game, believed this to be the best course of action for Cook and the team.
Cook decided to keep going and scored 95 against India in Southampton in the third Test of the series. At lunch on the first day he was not out - and he hadn’t been not out at lunch on the first day for a long while - and he received a standing ovation at The Rose Bowl. The emotion in the crowd was palpable. It was willing him on, showing him that he was their man, the man they wanted. Cook is popular alright.
Perhaps the reason there is even a debate about whether he is a great player, in much the same way as there appears to be the same argument about James Anderson, is that Cook is unflashy in both word and deed. He doesn’t have ramp shots or switch hits, he doesn’t seem as if he’s a harsh sledger and he hasn’t mastered one-day or T20 cricket. He is a typewriter in the age of the iPad.
Perhaps one of his gutsiest innings - Barbados, 2015
In Barbados last year, I witnessed Cook score his first Test hundred in almost two years. It was at times slower than slow, never fluent and relied much on his discipline. It was no surprise that as the rest of England’s batsmen floundered on a pivotal first day, Cook stayed strong, much as he had in monumental away performances in India in 2012 and Australia in 2010/11.
When he got to three figures, with a push through the leg-side, Cook was reduced to tears and I punched the air and cheered and clapped for all I was worth. You would never call that a great innings but to score it, under the pressure of a year of mainly disastrous performances and pressure for his place and his career, it was a great achievement.
Cook’s greatest strengths are concentration, stamina, patience, the ability to grind opponents down, to work harder than anyone else, to be a good bloke. Those are unflashy qualities in a flashy world but for a Test batsman they are undeniably required. They are characteristics that make runs, that influence games, that break records.
What the naysayers don’t comprehend is that there is not one way to be a great player. Cook does not dominate an attack like Ricky Ponting or Brian Lara did. He does not wow spectators like Virat Kholi or AB de Villiers either. He isn’t aesthetically pleasing as Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene were and can’t hope to be. But Test match batting is not about domination or asthetics or the wow factor.
Batting is not really batting if we are honest. It should be called run-scoring. That is what matters for individuals and teams, that what leads to centuries and victories. A scratchy hundred, made exclusively with a bunt to mid-wicket, a leave and a pull shot is still better than a flashy 30. Cook may well become the greatest run-scorer in the history of the game. That is what sets him apart.
© Cricket World 2016