England captain Alastair Cook labelled a 'genius' by Brendon McCullum

England play New Zealand in the second Test from tonight

Alastair Cook famously never sweats, but he did blush a little today when Brendon McCullum described him as a “genius”, second only to Don Bradman.

Whether it was mind games - or good, old honest respect for the opposition - McCullum perhaps elevated even the admirable Cook above his station, as their respective England and New Zealand teams completed preparations for the second Test in Wellington.

Cook, already out on his own as England's all-time most prolific Test centurion, followed a rare first-innings failure in Dunedin last week with a 24th hundred second time round to help complete the tourists' fightback and secure a draw.

Asked today how the Kiwis can hope to dismiss Cook in the remainder of this series, McCullum thought long and hard before delivering an unexpected eulogy.

"I think we bowled reasonably well to Cooky the other day," he said.

"He's obviously a genius batsman - his record is testament to that.

"Where he is at in his career at the moment, he's as good as anyone who has played the game - probably barring Bradman."

Cook, an ever-present for a record 87 successive matches for England, is in his prime at 28 - and his aversion to unforced errors makes him a formidable opener.

"He's enjoying the captaincy as well and leading from the front," said McCullum.

"We just have to bowl areas where we think we can dismiss him.

"If he's good enough to overcome that, then so be bit - and you move on to Plan B."

Bradman's unfortunate opponents doubtless went through many of the same thought processes, to very little avail.

But McCullum's high praise for Cook still does not quite stack up.

The England captain's average of 49.60 is just under half Bradman's peerless 99.94.

Between the two are another 38 batsmen in Test history with higher averages than Cook's, including eight present-day players and eight from his own country through the ages.

Among those above him, in terms of runs per innings, England's Test match coach Andy Flower comes in at 51.54 - while Cook's team-mates Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen are just a fraction below their captain. It took a moment for the man himself to recover the power of speech when told how highly McCullum rates him.

The best he could then do was to try to return the compliment for an opponent who is no slouch himself: "It's very nice of him to say that ... I'm not quite sure where he's got that from.

"You could talk about his genius batting, the way he hits the ball sometimes."

Cook will soon have his next opportunity to demonstrate his lofty status, with the second Test set to get under way tomorrow - or this evening UK time - and the series level at 0-0 with two to play.

When he does, he will not make the mistake of believing the hype.

"You never quite feel on top of the game," he said.

"What was pleasing for me was, after a few starts in the one-dayers here and in India but no match-winning score, I managed to get that bigger one in the first Test.

"I seemed to hit the ball okay."

That characteristic understatement was just not the order of today, though - from McCullum especially, who was more than happy to confirm his team will be unchanged and that he will bowl first if he wins the toss.

"Modern-day pitches don't tend to deteriorate too much.

"If there's any advantage it's on the first day ... I'm inclined to bowl first at the moment."

Such public statements of intent never feature in England's pre-match declarations - and the contrast was entirely predictable when, true to type under the Flower regime, Cook as ever declined to give the slightest hint about his tactics.

"I don't know yet, and I probably wouldn't be telling you if I knew what I was going to do," he said.

"As the away side, you obviously don't know the ground as well at the opposition, so you've got to have a look at the wicket tomorrow morning.

"It changes a huge amount from 12 hours out."

No one needed Cook to break cover, however, to know that his team too will be the same as - or at any rate very close to - the one that battled back for a stalemate at the University Oval.

With Kevin Pietersen expected to be fit despite his knee niggle, the only possible variant is whether England stick with Monty Panesar on another pitch unlikely to help the spinner - or go with an all-seam attack.

The latter option would spell a debut for Chris Woakes, and is a long shot.

Whoever gets the chance for England, it is clear Cook is more comfortable giving due credit to others then he is handling over-the-top praise himself.

"Our bowlers have been fantastic over a number of years now," he said of an attack led by James Anderson as he closes on 300 Test wickets.

"That's probably been the hallmark of our success."

It is something else too for McCullum to ponder.

 

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