At some point in the future, historians – should they remain legal in the post-factual galaxy – will sit down to write The Definitive History of Planet Earth: 2006 to 2016. They will pick over a world of bewildering social change, breakneck technological evolution and frenetic, furious politics. And when they scrutinise cricket, they will see a sport buffeted and renewed by these riptides of revolution. Yet in a world devoted to the instantaneous, Alastair Cook’s Test career has been an epic of throwback pragmatism.
Cook has played 140 Test matches in 11 years, scoring over 11,000 runs, with 83 innings of 50 or more. He has batted for 551 hours in Tests, overtaken Graham Gooch’s England record of 8,900 runs, crossed the 10,000 mark, and made 30 hundreds, another England record. Beneath the surface, however, lies a career of curious inconsistencies.
Take his conversion stats. By the end of June 2007, he had turned six of his first 11 half-centuries into hundreds. Between then and the end of the third Test in the Caribbean in February 2009, it was only one out of 14.
But between the fourth Test in Barbados, where he scored 94 and 139 not out on a futile featherbed, and the start of the 2013 Ashes, he converted 18 out of 29 (along with five dismissals in the nineties) – the second-best out of the 46 batsmen with at least 10 half-centuries in that period, behind only Jacques Kallis.
Between July 2013 and December 2016, by contrast, Cook converted only five of his 29 fifties into hundreds – the second-worst conversion rate among the 38 players with 10 or more. In other words, while he reached 50 with almost precisely the same regularity over both periods (once every three-and-a-bit innings), the Cook who gave honours-board engravers repetitive strain injury shed the cocoon of accumulation that once habitually formed around his innings.
Other aspects of Cook’s batting have undergone similarly enigmatic mutations. For much of his career, he was virtually unbowlable. His weakness lay in the poke outside off, which – allied to his strength off his legs – led bowlers to steer clear of the stumps. They were disturbed only 12 times in his first 98 Tests – once every 1,400 deliveries (for other Test openers across the same period the average figure was 449).
But in his 99th Test, at Adelaide in December 2013, Mitchell Johnson bowled him one of Test cricket’s least defendable deliveries, a 93mph outswinging masterpiece that, even with a month’s advance notice in writing, would still have smashed into off stump. Then, in his 100th, Ryan Harris produced an even better delivery, and Cook was cleanly castled again. His stumps have never regained their sense of undisturbability: in his last 42 Tests Cook has been bowled 16 times, once every 421 deliveries.
Similarly, for most of his career, Cook was one of the world’s most secure players of slow bowling. Until the start of the 2015 summer, he averaged 67 against spin, falling once every 150 balls. Then came another reversal: from the 2015 summer onwards, he has averaged 34 against spin and 59 against seam.
Loitering within this metamorphosis lies a further anomaly. Against the six all-time leading wicket-takers among Test spinners – Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Daniel Vettori and Rangana Herath – Cook has an aggregate of 598 for nine. Against part-timers Mohammad Hafeez, Ryan Hinds, Mohammad Mahmudullah and Kane Williamson, it is 169 for 10.
Then again, in a universe that has delivered Donald Trump as president of the United States, perhaps quirks such as these should no longer surprise us.
This is an edited extract, see Wisden for the full article.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, podcaster, ESPNcricinfo contributor and Test Match Special scorer.