Before his final Test, Alastair Cook said that he hoped to ‘make a strong contribution to an England win’. Given his struggles during this summer, it probably sounded hopeful at best. What people didn’t know, however, was that he went back to a recent method which had virtually saved his career three years ago.
After the first three matches of this summer’s Test series against India, a period in which he failed to pass fifty, Cook decided he had ‘lost his edge’ and subsequently made the decision to retire from international cricket. He wanted to end on a high, however, and felt a change in technique would help him to do so. That is when he decided to visit Gary Palmer.
Cook’s first encounter with Palmer came in 2015 after not scoring a Test century for nearly two years and being dropped from the ODI team. Desperate to turn his fortunes around, Cook turned to Palmer, who was recommended by mentor Graham Gooch, having initially been contacted by Palmer. The England captain was arguably at the lowest point in his career, yet was receptive enough to accept help from outside the England coaching set-up to arrest his slump.
Palmer, who played first-class cricket for Somerset, is currently a freelance coach who works privately with a number of international and county players. He believes that an open stance prevents players from falling towards the offside and playing around their front pad – something Cook was suffering from during his barren spell between 2013 and 2015. In addition, Palmer 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.
Such technical adjustments were made and Cook’s form was revitalised. Not long after meeting Palmer, Cook scored his first Test hundred for nearly two years in the West Indies, followed by 162 against New Zealand at Lord’s at the start of the 2015 English summer. It was noticeable that he was hitting more balls down the ground than normal, as well as playing with more fluency.
In 2016, Cook scored 1270 Test runs at an average of 42.33 and 643 County Championship runs at 91.85 for Essex. However, due to him not being in the ECB coaching set-up, Palmer was unable to consistently work with the high-maintenance Cook and the former England captain’s form became inconsistent. You would be forgiven to think how many more runs Cook could have scored had he been able to work with Palmer regularly, especially on tour.
With the fluency returned and his technique evolved, Cook was also able to display his ability to succeed in the one-day format in 2017. He finished as top scorer in the Royal London One-Day Cup with 636 runs at 79.50, with three centuries and the same number of fifties. He had clearly returned to his best.
The pair had barely worked with each other since the Test series in New Zealand earlier this winter until Cook made the decision to contact Palmer for a session before the fourth Test against India at the Ageas Bowl. Due to the lack of time together, Cook returned to triggering straight back instead of back and across, as well as not covering his stumps, which consequently resulted in him not decisively knowing where his off-stump was. It made it difficult for him to perform effectively, especially against right arm around and left arm over the wicket pace bowlers.
Palmer quickly identified such issues and went to work at addressing them. The message to Cook was similar to the one from all their previous sessions since 2015 – open your stance, cover your stumps, focus on hitting straight in the ‘V’ and point your laces down the wicket just prior to contact with the ball. After taking on board the changes, Cook hit balls on the bowling machine for two hours to implement the aforementioned ‘muscle memory’.
Session finished and technique fine-tuned, Cook then went into the Ageas Bowl a different player. Success didn’t come immediately, though. After looking good for 17 from 54 balls while wickets fell at the other end, the 33-year-old played an uncharacteristic jab at a wide ball and was caught at third slip. A loose drive stopped his innings at 12 in the second innings but the signs were there that the fluency was returning.
Onto The Oval then, and Cook walked out to bat on day one of his final Test. He made 71, his then highest score of the series, which was full of smart leaves, good shot selection and execution and that outstanding security that has brought him so many Test runs over the years. His second innings knock of 147 featured similar fluency as the first but for a longer period and with higher reward. He batted beautifully and showed tremendous powers of concentration on the way to becoming just the fifth man in Test history to make a century in both his first and last Test match. He handled the pressure of a nation with ease. He delivered the goods, as he has done throughout his Test career.
Cook was going back and across more, which gave him better balance and resulted in him being slightly more open when hitting down the ground, as well as having a greater idea of the location of his off-stump. And, after looking so out of sorts for most of the summer, just one session made Cook return to a player who looked like he could go on for a few more years yet. It emphasised how receptive he is to go outside his comfort zone, identify a technical problem and fix it.
It was further noticeable that Cook covered his stumps more when playing India’s spinners, therefore minimizing the chance of him being bowled, which happened twice in the first Test of the series.
Cook may have been the run scorer and performer, but Palmer was the mechanic in the background. He has been instrumental to prolonging the final part of Cook’s career by implementing key technical changes into his game that perhaps other players should think about trying also.
So while all the attention was on Cook as he piled on the runs, Palmer watched on from afar – delighted to see Cook display the perfect farewell to a glittering career.