It’s common knowledge that Alastair Cook’s career as an England cricketer has not come without its challenges. He has had to deal with career-threatening slumps in form, two 5-0 Ashes whitewash defeats and the Kevin Pietersen saga, amongst others during his time as a player and a captain. Yet it was the 4-0 defeat in India last winter when Cook decided to let go.
Cook decided that it was time step down as Test captain, handing the reigns over to Joe Root after an English record of 59 matches in charge. “I won’t miss going into all the extra press conferences,” Cook told ESPN Cricinfo at the start of April. “But being at the centre of it, being involved in a lot of decision-making, was the excitement of the job. Not doing that any more, will probably take a while to get used to. Ultimately I know it was the right decision for myself and the team but that doesn’t make it any easier. It has been time to move on as a person and a player.”
It was not only a tough tour for Cook as captain in India, the 32-year-old did not reach the sensational heights he hit during his previous tour of the country in 2012 with the bat either. After an encouraging start with 130 in the second innings of the first Test at Rajkot, Cook managed just 239 runs from a further nine innings as India’s spinners, Ravindra Jadeja in particular, got the better of him.
And yet, amongst all the problems that occurred during that tour, Cook enters another English summer as an imperative part of the Test side’s chances of progressing. He is a key man. While the cricketing world now sees pure entertainment as essential to the game, Cook retains those old-fashioned qualities that have earned him 11,057 Test runs to date and in the process, broken many England records. The patience, the shot-selection and the concentration are all virtues that remain integral to Cook’s game in an England side that have been criticised for being too impatient whilst at the crease in the Test arena.
Just to underline the importance of Cook to the England cause, England have still failed to nail down a long-term opening partner for the Essex man since Andrew Strauss’s retirement. That problem was believed to have been solved in India when Haseeb Hameed showed immense promise in challenging conditions. However, Hameed’s form since picking up a hand injury in the third Test is a concern. The youngster scored just 33 runs from four innings for the England Lions against Sri Lanka ‘A’, and has failed to register a fifty in his first six innings of the County Championship season.
Keaton Jennings also impressed in India, hitting a superb 112 on debut in the fourth Test at Mumbai, looking especially good on the technical front. Yet, as a result of the likelihood of Joe Root moving back down to number four this summer, it is thought that Jennings will move to the number three slot – another position that England have struggled with since the days of Jonathan Trott, despite Root sparkling there at times last summer.
One thing that is certain, however, is that Cook will plough on. And the signs are positive. Cook himself admitted that he did not pick up a bat for two months after the India tour in order to take a short break from the game. Since bat has been back in hand, though, Cook’s form has been exemplary. In addition to scoring 52 and 110 in Essex’s first game of the Division One season, Cook has also found some serious form in the List A format, scoring 273 runs from his last three innings, with two hundreds.
Not only is Cook scoring heavily, there are areas of his game that look vastly improved. We all know Cook for the clips of his hips, the powerful cut-shots and equally strong pulls, but the opener is now scoring convincingly down the ground and, in general, through the ‘V’. In years gone by, Cook has been guilty of falling over whilst attempting these shots and, therefore, has instead chosen to stick to his preferred areas of scoring. Now, he looks a much more well-rounded player.
This has largely been down the work with Gary Palmer, the freelance batting coach who has been working with Cook for over two years. Palmer is a technical coach who believes that an open stance prevents players from falling towards the offside. He is convinced that attention to detail on technique, as well as hitting hundreds of balls to implement the method and ‘build muscle memory’, is paramount to a batsman’s success. It was Palmer’s help that guided Cook out of a slump of form in the West Indies in 2015 and the technical side of the game is something essential to the pair’s sessions as they continue to work together.
In addition to the continued guidance of Palmer, Cook is likely to benefit from plenty of cricket under his belt this summer. As a result of him no longer being in the England one-day set-up, Cook has made himself available for every game for Essex until the all-important first Test against South Africa at Lord’s on 6th July. The extra game time could prove pivotal to his success this summer as England aim to beat South Africa in a Test series at home for the first time since 1998.
So while the world of cricket turns its attention to one-day cricket ahead of the ICC Champions Trophy, Cook will continue doing what he does best: churning out runs. “It’s the next phase of my career,” he said to ESPN Cricinfo. “I’m refreshed and raring to go. It’s time to move on.” Cook will do just that, and the early signs point towards a potentially prolific summer for the former England captain.