England v Pakistan is very rarely dull.
Take the series we’re currently in the middle of. So far, and hopefully it remains so, there have been no controversial incidents off the field. Instead, the series is a wonderfully entertaining spectacle packed full of talented individuals, enthralling storylines and captivating sessions.
Misbah’s century at Lords, Yasir’s 10-fer, Woakes’ bowling throughout, Cook and Root’s partnership at Old Trafford and England’s magnificent comeback at Edgbaston are just some of the highlights of the series England lead 2-1 with one to play.
Tomorrow, the sides return to the field for the final Test match, with both sides capable of victory at The Oval. Quite frankly, no one can say Pakistan don’t deserve to draw the series, yet England will be going all out to win (or avoid defeat) as should they win the series, they will have won all of their most recent test series against every test nation.
But England v Pakistan at The Oval is special, and poignant, for a different reason.
The 2010 series between the two nations has infamously gone down in history as the series in which spot fixing by two Pakistan bowlers, orchestrated by their captain, dragged the sport into an ugly mess of controversy and mistrust. It’s a much talked about subject, especially as the youngest of the bowlers, Mohammed Amir, only made his return to Test cricket earlier this series.
For me, however, the 2010 series is memorable for a completely different event. One which seems absurd thinking back six years.
Earlier in 2010, England had toured Bangladesh and chose to rest their skipper, Andrew Strauss. Fellow opener Alastair Cook captained in his absence, and did exceptionally well – scoring two centuries in two matches in a 2-0 victory.
What followed was a dry spell never experienced before by Cook, and never experienced since. Going into the test match against Pakistan at The Oval, Cook had scored 100 runs all summer.
100 runs. From seven test innings. At an average of 14. With a high score of 29. Against Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Understandably, there were calls to drop him. A Guardian article I’ve found stated: “We understand Cook’s virtues: solid citizen, solid batsman and in possession of a very solid record. He is still only 25 yet he has 12 Test centuries to his name and 4,238 Test runs. We can all agree that he is the best option to open the batting with Andrew Strauss in November at Brisbane. But that doesn’t mean he should never be dropped.”
They make a perfectly valid point, however you can argue the other way with the same stats. Cook’s record was so good; it was clearly only a blip. Except, it didn’t feel like a blip. Cook, seemingly, had been found out.
The 2010 series had personal relevance too. Since the Ashes victory in 05, I hadn’t watched a single day of live Test match cricket on the TV. I didn’t have a Sky subscription, and wasn’t brave enough to illegally stream it. In 2010, BT rolled out a deal which allowed their customers to watch Sky Sports 1&2. And so there I was, finally watching Test cricket again.
Logic would assume, watching Cook fail time and time again, that I’d be leading the call to drop him. However, I’m a stats man and I had looked at his record and was declaring to everyone who would listen (realistically, that was only my mum – and probably only with half an ear) that he was going to be the greatest England batter of all time. He’d score more runs than anyone else and would celebrate more centuries.
And therefore I was desperate for him to score big at The Oval.
With the Ashes just two tests away, even the Sky commentators were getting itchy about Alastair Cook. Named in the side for The Oval test, I remember one of them saying it was his last chance. Fail in this match and England needed to draft in a replacement so they had someone to take to Australia.
England won the toss and elected to bat. This is usually good for an opener in need of runs. Yes, they have to face the new ball on the first morning of a test, but survive the first hour and the runs should flow.
Cook didn’t survive the first hour. He barely survived the first over. Out for 6 off 7 balls (an impressive strike rate for Alastair), he then watched as England slumped to 84-6 and 233 all out. Test debutant Wahab Riaz did the damage, taking five wickets.
Day three. August 20th 2010. Possibly the landmark day of Alastair Cook’s career. It wasn’t a pretty innings; in many ways it was horrible to watch. He had lost Strauss in the first over the night before, and then lost night watchman Anderson fairly quickly in the morning. Trott and Pietersen stuck around for a while as Cook continued to crawl towards a century.
Even run was tense, every boundary a relief. Every ball carried a mini heart attack as I willed him not to edge it, begged him to leave well and hoped he would get a bat to those that could threaten his pads. As a frighteningly good attack of Riaz, Amir, Mohammed Asif and Saeed Ajmal ran in, it seemed inevitable that he would fall at some point before his century.
And then the unthinkable happened. He reached it. He lifted his bat, relief and determination etched on his face. He would only score 110, England would collapse and lose the match but that didn’t really matter. Alastair Cook had guaranteed his slot as England opener for a little while longer.
I’m fairly sure most know what happened after that innings. Cook went to Australia, and scored 766 runs in 5 Test matches, including a match saving 235* in the first test in Brisbane, as England won in Australia for the first time in 24 years. When Strauss retired after the 2012 series loss to South Africa, Cook took over as captain. Under his guidance, England beat India in their back yard, haven’t lost an Ashes series on home soil and are, as mentioned above, on the brink of holding all of the Test trophies they compete for.
The return to The Oval against Pakistan has come at a perfect time for Alastair Cook. During the second innings of the Edgbaston test, he overtook Kevin Pietersen as the all time leading run scorer for England in all formats. Earlier in the summer, he became the first English batter to score 10,000 test runs and now has 29 Test centuries to his name.
Only Michael Atherton has captained England in more test matches (54 – Cook is currently on 51), and only Alec Stewart has appeared in more test matches (133 – barring injury today or tomorrow morning, Cook will draw level at the Oval).
Whether Cook is England’s greatest or not is irrelevant (and I was stupid for ever thinking that mattered). You can’t compare him to the greats of old because they never played together and never against the same attacks. But Alastair Cook will always be considered as amongst them. He’s broken new ground for England, and continues to do it every time he takes to the wicket.
But, above all, the story of Alastair Cook on the 20th August is the best example I’ve ever found of a young player finally and instantly living up to his potential.
And, boy has he followed it up.