The Ashes: Cook inching his way to level of greatness
By the time Sachin Tendulkar was Alastair Cook's age he had obviously scored more Test match runs.
One is a legend of the game wielding a bat that moves at the speed of light and the other is a former choirboy from Essex who sometimes makes his craft look less fluent than hewing for coal.
So when the glorious Tendulkar reached his 26th birthday he had made 5,177 runs for India including 18 hundreds. That total is 318 runs more than Cook's 4,859, which includes 15 hundreds. And nobody else comes close. Graeme Smith of South Africa was in his 28th year when he reached the number of runs that Cook has so far annexed, David Gower, the next Englishman, was in his 29th, Don Bradman in his 30th, Gary Sobers was 30.
Cook will be 26 on Christmas Day and he already seems to have been opening England's batting forever. He spent the first two matches of this Ashes series demonstrating his particular attributes. There is nothing fancy at all about his strokeplay. But he must have co-written the manual on playing within your limitations and his powers of concentration, in which every ball becomes a new contest, can make a flibbertigibbet of a chess grandmaster.
When he reached Brisbane, doubts lingered about whether his lack of style, allied as it was to an undoubted substance, could carry it all for much longer. In the team at 21, his strengths and weaknesses still seemed to be the same nearly five years on. The spicy pitches at home last summer had suited no batsman, especially those charged with facing the new ball, and Cook's second innings 110 at the Oval in the third Test against Pakistan probably saved his career.
But he needed to do it against Australia. In two previous Ashes series his record had been pitiful. His limitations had been exposed (especially his tendency to push at the ball around where fourth stump might be) his strengths subdued (especially his cutting and clipping).
At the Gabba, Cook made 67 and 235 not out and at the Adelaide Oval, another 148. Suddenly, he was a run machine. He dried up along with everybody else at Perth. Going along neatly in the first innings, it was his dismissal for 32, a drive veering off the outside of the bat to gully, that provoked the following collapse.
“I don't think you can say you'll score 450 runs in every two Tests you play,” he said yesterday as the tourists arrived in Melbourne still licking wounds inflicted during the 267-run defeat in Perth that levelled the series.
“But you can do it again, that's the beauty of batting. I didn't do it again but there is the chance to go to Melbourne and score some runs again. I feel in good nick.”
Dropped twice in Brisbane, on 103 and 222, Cook’s was an innings of breathtaking calm.
He followed it up in Adelaide but, like the rest of England's batsmen, mucked it up in Perth.
“I thought we bowled pretty well but, if you are bowled out for 180 and 120, you are not going to win a Test,” he said.
“We have a little history of doing it, that's losing wickets quickly and that's an area we are desperately trying to improve on. First off we have to be very honest within the group as to what went wrong, there is no magic cure, the only way is individually: in those first few balls when you go in, they are the most dangerous.”
The way things are going, Cook will end his career as easily England's leading run getter. This little fact will not be to all tastes, since immediately ahead of him in 20th place at present is Tom Graveney, who exuded class, and in front of him are men like Jack Hobbs, Denis Compton, Wally Hammond, David Gower and at the top of the tree, Gooch.
None of this should cut any ice. It was clear when Cook burst on to the scene that he had what it took, enough talent and a state of mind, perhaps honed by long hours of practice when he was in the St Paul's Cathedral choir, that made it possible for him to occupy the crease for hour upon hour.