Preview: Confident Alastair Cook feels he has found the essence of batting
The life of the England captain is similar, in one way, to being the mother of a growing family. There are so many people seeking your attention – kids/teammates, husbands/chief executives, teachers/coaches – that there is no time for yourself. You finish up stressed and careworn, a pale, diminished version of your former self.
That is what happened to Alastair Cook. By December last year, in Sri Lanka, the composed, relentless accumulator of test runs had become an anxious, gum-chewing, hacker (well almost) who was trying so hard to prove his one-day detractors wrong he ended up proving them right.
He was distraught at being omitted from the World Cup squad, but it was the proverbial blessing in disguise. It allowed him precious time – three months, almost unprecedented on international cricket’s whirlygig – to have a proper look at his game and understand it more clearly. One of the fundamentals of batting is realizing your limitations. Or, as Ricky Ponting likes to put it – ‘swimming between the flags.’ The route to success is through self-awareness.
So when I ask Cook, gazing out over the Oval’s green sward last week, what is the essence of batting, it is clear he has worked it out. ‘It is having the technique and the patience to make the bowler come to you. It is knowing your strengths and playing to them. So I cut and pull and clip [on the legside]. Those are my major shots. The secret is to leave the ball well enough so that the bowler will come to my areas for my low-risk shots.’
Cook’s superbly-constructed hundred against New Zealand at Lord’s – his 27th in tests – featured numerous examples of ‘leaves’ just outside off-stump, the ball sometimes only missing the wicket by a few centimetres. Fast bowlers hate seeing their most strenuous efforts left calmly alone and invariably seek a straighter line. That plays perfectly into Cook’s hands.
‘Letting the bowler come to you happens when you’re in form,’ he says. ‘When you’re not in form you go searching for the ball more. Since doing some work with Graham Gooch and a bit with [ex-Somerset’s] Gary Palmer before the West Indies tour I have felt very comfortable about where my off-stump is. Anything outside my left eye I don’t have to play at.’ Discipline and confidence have been the source of his renewed productivity (577 runs in 5 tests this year, average 64.11.)
Time away also allowed him to make one small but significant adjustment to his set up. This is a much bigger deal than it sounds. Batsmen are creatures of habit who adhere to a strict routine of food intake, certain pre-match music, kit donned in a particular order, repetitive preparation and ingrained positioning at the crease. Changing a stance, even minutely, is practically like learning to walk again. It is a major physical, and psychological, step.
But Cook did change. ‘There are less and less secrets in the world, and more and more bowlers have tried to get me on to the front foot driving early on. My front foot was getting dragged across towards extra cover [which results in trying to drive too square and getting an edge, or overbalancing.] I’ve opened my stance up a bit and made sure that my front foot goes down in a straighter line towards where the ball’s coming from. I’m defending and hitting the ball back much straighter than I was.’ I will vouch for that having to take swift evasive action when I threw him a few in the Oval nets. He is unexpectedly strong.
Cook’s primary assets are the pull and the cut. The pull, particularly, is a stroke that demoralizes the bowler, their ‘effort’ ball – often a bouncer – dispatched with a resounding thwack. It is seen by some as a risky shot, but to him its as natural as putting a hand through his hair. ‘Technically I’ve got high hands, so from my backlift I’m already in position to play the pull shot – I can come down on the ball – and I’m back and across too. It probably stems from years of playing backyard cricket on a 10 yard pitch with my brother who was two years older so his bowling felt quick and I didn’t get too many balls pitched up!’
‘I also found out from eye specialists that the lower half of my vision is better than the top half, so I can pick up length quickly for short balls. Its nice not having too much of an issue with the short ball. I’d be happy if fast bowlers bombed me. I’d back myself 99% to keep the shot down and hit the gap, and also it takes a lot out of a bowler to do it.’ Cook’s fearlessness in this regard is reassuring as Australia’s small battalion of pacemen maraud into town.
What defines Cook, however, is his calm demeanour at the crease and his flawless concentration. The little stroll away from the wicket between balls is as much a trademark as his remorseless square cut. He must cover more than five miles doing this during a hundred. ‘It’s a habit. It’s part of the process of drawing a line under the previous ball. Whether you’ve played the worst shot or the best shot, you can’t do anything about it. It’s vital to move on. You have a few seconds of relaxing. The key is to allow your mind to wander, allowing it to think whatever it wants to think. It could be “Hmm, that’s an interesting field placing” or something off the field that’s not remotely relevant. It doesn’t matter. The key is to be able to revert back to your primary objective which for me is committing and watching the ball.’
‘And how do you do that?’ I ask.
‘Simple, just tell myself. Watch the ball. Commit. That’s why I walk back to the crease. It’s my cue: “right here we go ago again.” When you’re in form batting for an hour feels like 10 minutes. When you’re out of form, batting for 10 minutes feels like a day! It’s a strange thing. But you do know when you’re starting to get into that good rhythm, and it’s a very nice feeling.’
What’s more, the best way to avoid all the hassle attached to being England captain is to stay out in the middle – batting – as long as possible.