As challenges go in Test cricket, that was pretty easy. Not much was expected from the West Indies before this series started and even less will be expected from them now. England will not have many easier matches during Joe Root’s reign as captain than the innings and 209-run thrashing they gave out to the Windies at Edgbaston.
Sure, it gave England easier-earned success with both bat and ball after the hard graft against South Africa, but we will have learned very little about England’s mental and physical resolve against quality opposition going into the Ashes this winter. As a result, the questions that remained with this England side are still yet to be answered.
Two of the new boys, Mark Stoneman and Tom Westley, failed to get a score and the other man trying to nail down his spot, Dawid Malan, scored 65 but is still yet to convince after missing out on a golden opportunity for a big score. At the moment, the wait is so long for England to establish some solidarity in their top order that it feels like there may never be a solution.
As a result, the importance of Alastair Cook to England’s Ashes chances are paramount and there was no better emphasis of just that than his performance at Edgbaston. His 243 was a masterclass not only in patience and mental fortitude, but also how to grind a bowling attack down to the point where they virtually give up on taking your wicket. It was vintage Cook.
What is so impressive about the former England captain is that in an age where players are developing new shots by the year, Cook knows his strong areas and refuses to leave them. You could say that Test cricket is losing that type of player, especially in the opening position as teams insist on scoring at a quicker pace.
As his innings became more monumental and as it became clear England were set for a big total, it would have been easy for Cook to have been lured into some big shots, but he refused. Cook’s game doesn’t change, no matter if he is on five, 105, or 205. He knows his role in the side is to occupy the crease and be the man England aim to build a long innings around. In this day and age, players like that are invaluable.
And that is why he is so important for the Ashes. As is well documented, three of England’s top five are still yet to be decided and it perhaps the only area they currently look vulnerable. Australia are bound to target that hard through the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood, and Pat Cummins when England visit. And as we saw in 2013/14, when the Aussies do it well, it can prove devastating.
So Cook needs to lead the way. During that series, he found barely any of his stunning, record-breaking form from 2010/11 and it meant that England were regularly under such pressure. In short, history shows that when Cook scores runs, England tend to do rather well. England need him to again be the rock that grinds down bowlers like he just has against the West Indies.
When people think of Cook, they often think of a player who is restricted. Indeed, we all know him for the powerful cuts and pulls, and the neat clips of his legs. He has made a reputation of playing within his supposed limitations and he himself has admitted that he has ‘only three or four shots’ in his locker.
The reality is, however, that Cook is now a much more well-rounded player. Thanks to his continued work with freelance batting coach Gary Palmer, he has adopted a more open stance and has emphasised a straighter bat in his strokes. Not only does it mean he can score even more freely through the leg-side without tipping over and losing his balance, but it has allowed him to play more frequently and effectively through the ‘V’.
Given the experience and weight of runs behind him, it would have been easy for Cook to stick to his own game. But it shows his receptiveness and how willing he is to learn that he turned to technical coach Palmer, who has and still is helping the 32-year-old develop his game. And we have seen plenty of evidence in the improvement in Cook’s batting since he began working with Palmer back in 2015.
In addition to Palmer’s help, it looks like giving up the captaincy is also proving a positive move for Cook. In India, he looked like a man weighed down by the pressure and strain of being captain, especially when his side were being hammered by Virat Kohli’s men. Now, without that particular burden, we are seeing a much more relaxed and happy Cook. He can focus solely on his batting and the results are there to see.
It has been a while since we last saw Cook play one of his marathon knocks. Before this Test, he had scored just five centuries in his previous 52 Test innings, so his effort against the West Indies gave us an emphatic reminder of his importance to this England team. He and Root are vital to England’s Ashes chances and such a knock will have only brought smiles to English faces and frowns to Australian ones.
So while panic may soon set in over players not taking their chance in England’s top order, Cook will continue what he does best – making big runs. He is England’s rock, their calming influence, and the man they will hope leads the way to Ashes success down under this winter.