An England cricketer scored his maiden Ashes hundred yesterday. It was some story and the innings was frequently magisterial. But Ian Bell was eclipsed by the man with whom he shared a significant partnership of 154 for the sixth wicket, which might finally have seen Australia off.
Alastair Cook's career has turned from nightmare to the stuff dreams are made on. He scored 189 yesterday to take his aggregate for this series to 766. Only one Englishman, Wally Hammond who scored 905 runs in 1928-29, also against Australia, has compiled more runs in a single series, and none has spent as much time at the crease.
By the time he was eventually out yesterday, caught at gulley by Mike Hussey, the left-handed openers had batted for 36 hours and 11 minutes in this series, longer than the measly 34 hours and seven minutes which John Edrich managed in the 1970-71 series against Australia (and he had six matches).
It has all been testimony to Cook's stamina, temperament and doggedness. Last summer he could hardly buy a run and when England began on this expedition his support was thin, and thinner still after two failures in the first tour match in Perth.
"Form comes and goes," he said after his latest epic yesterday, his third hundred of this series, his fourth of the winter. "I couldn't hit the middle of the bat six months ago. I don't quite know why. It's the secret of sport, isn't it; why form comes and goes, and so quickly as well. There were some pretty dark times last summer and I'm sure there will be in my career at some other time but you have to enjoy moments like today."
Cook barely made a false stroke in his long occupation in which he had shared important stands, first with Andrew Strauss which set England off to the flier they craved, and then with Bell who after 31 innings against the oldest enemy at last made a century. It was not quite effortless and if you had to choose somebody to watch batting for more than 30 hours, Cook would probably not be top of the list. But his attributes are enviable.
"You work hard physically, you work hard on the mental side of the game but when you're in this form it all happens quite easily," he said. "You bat for an hour and you don't realise it. Last summer, when I was desperately trying to bat for 10 minutes, it felt like a lifetime.
"You get in that rhythm, that tempo and you just try to think, 'Don't make mistakes'. And because you're not worried about your technique it makes it easier. You get a bit tired physically but you would rather be a little bit tired and score a hundred."
Last summer's demons were initially swept away by a fighting century against Pakistan at The Oval. But they were only lurking round the corner and when Cook failed against Western Australia in Perth in early November they showed their ugly little faces again.
"I had a tough summer, which has been well documented and you always want to start a tour well," said Cook. "Not scoring runs in that game made it important in that second tour game at Adelaide. When I scored that hundred in that second innings I just thought, 'Well, I can score runs in Australia'. It was that little bit of confidence you always need. My game plan does work if I execute it well and it has served me well this trip."
There is still work to do to secure the series, as he admitted. But he allowed himself one glimmer of what the immediate future might bring. "When I get home in a week's time and I'm on the farm walking the dog, then I might think, 'Well, you've achieved something special'," he said. And so he has.
Cook's record series
2,171 minutes that Alastair Cook has batted at the crease in this Ashes series, the longest by an Englishman in a Test series.
766 Cook's runs in the 2010-11 Ashes, the second highest total by an English batsman in a series – but his average of 127.66 is the highest.
1,438 Cook has faced the most balls in the series, over 400 more than Australia's Mike Hussey.
81 The number of fours Cook has hit so far in seven innings in the series, plus one six.
800 Only seven batsmen have hit over 800 runs in a Test series, Cook needs just 34 more to join the list.
26.21 Cook's woeful average against Australia in 10 Tests before the start of the current series.
Most runs in a series from an English batsman:
1. W Hammond 5 /905 (113.12)/251 (The Ashes in Australia 1928-29)
2. A Cook 5*/766 (127.66)/235* (The Ashes in Australia 2010-11)
3. D Compton 5/753 (94.12)/208 (South Africa in England 1947)
4. G Gooch/3/752 (125.33)/333 (India in England 1990)
5. H Sutcliffe 5/734 (81.55)/176 (The Ashes in Australia 1924-25)
6. D Gower 6/732 (81.33)/215 (The Ashes in England 1985)