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Cook of the top order

G Unnikrishnan, Dec 9, 2012 :

Cricket

Master chef: Alastair Cook is  relishing the  responsibility of captaincy, as evident from his impressive run. pti

The England captain has played well within his limitations to emerge as a relentless run machine .

Alastair Cook bats in his private universe these days, where his focus is completely on constructing some tall edifices. Nothing deters him from that task – spinners, pacers, pressure of playing in conditions alien to him, and boisterous crowds. It’s all accomplished in the most unobtrusive of ways. There’s a certain blandness about his batting that Cook turns into his advantage.

He already has three hundreds (176, 122 and 190) in the on-going series against India and is among the most successful visiting batsmen in Test cricket in these shores. But still you would struggle to pick a Cook Moment from any those innings. Kevin Pietersen’s touched-by-genius 186 at Mumbai will be talked about in more glowing terms than Cook’s three hundreds on the trot in the coming years.

In a way, Cook too desires that – stay under the radar to clinically dismantle the opposition and you require a serene space for such a job. By no means is Cook the first batsman to come to India and dominate the home bowlers.

There have been many batsmen from England, Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies, who came here in different eras and left an imposing imprint behind them. And all of them will be remembered for a particular way they adopted to survive and then master the Indian conditions and bowlers.

Clive Lloyd and Gordon Greenidge were all bristling with aggression in the 70s, Mike Gatting in the 80s and then Matthew Hayden in the early 2000s used sweep extensively to nullify the spin effect, Jacques Kallis moved across the off-stump against Harbhajan Singh at his peak to take leg before out of the equation, Jimmy Adams used his pads as the first line of defence while a twinkling-footed Carl Hooper met the ball down the pitch to smother the spin.

So what has been Cook’s method to succeed here? You cannot pick one method – there was sweep, cut, pull, drive, and the occasional charge to the spinners as if to remind that he’s capable of aggression. His success lies in his ability to play those strokes off the right deliveries, and add yogic concentration to the mix you will get a lethal combination.

You won’t see a cut off a ball that doesn’t offer width for that particular shot, similarly he never tries to drive a ball out of his reach or pull a delivery that is not short enough. Quite simply, the bowlers can’t pick a chink, one weak point that they can concentrate and exploit. It’s something like a sculptor creating a statue – careful and chipping away those unwanted parts of the wood. It’s an elaborate art and a precise science at the same time, and Cook has managed to fuse them together in brilliant fashion.

There is also this clarity of mind, an awareness of his path ahead that’s quite amazing for a man who is a fortnight shy of becoming just 28. When his partner at the totem pole position Nick Compton stressed on Cook’s ability to stay focused, he was merely stating the obvious.

“I would say he’s very clear in his head. He seems to know exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to do. Being very unflappable is probably a good way to describe him,” Compton said.

But there was a time not so long ago when Cook struggled for decent amount of runs, and only a hundred against Pakistan at the Oval in 2010 saved his place in the team. It was the kind of time when the left-hander was haunted by self-doubts.

Technical issues began to crop up like his unhealthy obsession about back-lift that led to certain level of looseness while driving and cutting – two crucial aspects of Cook’s game, and thereby losing instinctive response to deliveries.

Batsmen who suffer from technical issues often ask that tough question to himself: “Am I worthy to play at the highest level?”

Cook, however, was fortunate to have someone one like Graham Gooch near him. The former England captain knows all about going through a traumatic phase as he had experienced it during his tenure at the helm. And there’s no one better to turn for a piece of advice than someone who had gone through a similar crisis.

Gooch worked with Cook for multiple sessions spanning 90 minutes for three days a week, focusing in correcting the technical flaws and restoring the confidence – in himself and in his game. The hunger for runs and self-confidence returned gradually, finally launching him to the England captaincy, and he will be the face of England cricket team for some years to come, barring any major blips.

Now, Cook will be challenged – as a captain and batsman. He will have to attend countless team meetings and mandatory media meets, and he will have to spend time for others in the team, effectively less time for himself and his batting. His form will inevitably dip at some point of time, and England will lose series at home and away at some stage, and Cook will have to be the first one to answer a few tough queries.

But Gooch has belief in his ward. “He’s a tough character with exemplary temperament. He has flowered under captaincy, and that’s something very good to see. Not many players do that, and he has showed a willingness to shoulder responsibility. He keeps things simple,” Gooch said.

Yes, Cook has been simple throughout this series – on and off the field. There was hardly a word out of context by him in the press conferences, just like his batting and making him somewhat colourless and invisible. But there’s a tough character behind that simplicity – focused and clear in his goals.

It’s quite difficult to shake such men off their track. Ask MS Dhoni & Co!



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