James Lawton: This pillar of England, the marathon man, goes from lambs to a slaughter

 

The story of Alastair Cook's latest massive contribution to the England cause will always be accompanied by a torrent of eye-catching little numbers like 12 hours at the crease and 33 fours and a total of runs just six short of 300. But if these particular statistics hardly lie, nor do they tell the whole story.

They perhaps do not explain the essential Cook, who in the spring delivers lambs at the farm of his girlfriend's family, which is perhaps some kind of break from slaughtering the psyche of some of the world's best bowlers.

Some of that core of Cook did emerge when England, for a third successive day, stretched India to the point of collapse.

Between 11.03 yesterday morning and 3.15 in the afternoon, Cook amassed the miserly total of two fours. Neither was a thing of beauty.

The second was in fact rather ugly, a scoop of a mis-hit through the offside that might have been delivered as well with an old iron ladle as something shaped and pressed from the finest willow. However, this is Cook.

He is not an aesthetic experience, and some might say that a few minutes of Kevin Pietersen – who was in such breathtaking form when England began on Thursday evening their latest manhandling of the Indian Test team formerly known as the best in the world – is worth all the hours Cook put into his latest marathon score.

But then it depends on your perspective. If you want to enjoy the most exciting rhythms of cricket you opt for someone like the big man from South Africa.

If you are England captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower and you want to rule the world, and believe one sure-fire way of doing it is working a little "mental disintegration" on the opposition, Cook, the batting star of Bedford School who has become the most resilient pillar of England, is most assuredly your man.

At his very best, Cook can muster an impressively brisk functionalism. He doesn't dissect, he infiltrates, pushing along the score with a nurdling application enlivened from time to time with a splendidly efficient square cut.

For a little while yesterday, Cook was comprehensively outshone by Eoin Morgan, the hard-hitting Irishman who in his fight for survival at Test level has developed an extraordinarily combative little crouch before playing the ball. Cook was content to watch Morgan accelerate the rate of India's disintegration. England made the notorious phrase, first coined by Australia's all-conquering captain Steve Waugh, the mantra for something that increasingly resembled their final push to crush all the life and the pride out of an Indian team which so recently won the World Cup quite brilliantly.

Morgan's century was a vital contribution to England's tactics on the third day of a Test which seemed so certain to follow the pattern of the first two at Lord's and Trent Bridge.

He came, he sparkled and he went. Cook, naturally, continued to plod along. And with each of his steps England became a little more impregnable, despite losing Ravi Bopara – the haunted batsman fighting desperately to regain a toe-hold in Test cricket – and the recently insatiable run-getter Matt Prior. He simply awaited the arrival of Tim Bresnan, who batted with exactly the same highly competent swagger that he produced at Trent Bridge when he came in to replaced the injured Chris Tremlett.

Here was another stark point of difference between these teams who are notionally fighting for the world title of Test cricket.

Bresnan was a respected but hardly celebrated replacement for a front-line performer at the bowling crease but he was superb with both the ball and the bat. By comparison, Virender Sehwag was the trumpeted saviour of India, the one-man Seventh Cavalry who dallied amid the riches of the Indian Premier League instead of submitting to the surgery on a shoulder injury which might have delivered him here in some kind of competitive condition.

Yet he walked from the field here last night the stunned recipient of a King Pair. Two deliveries, one from Stuart Broad on Thursday night, one from James Anderson in his first over last evening, no runs and a massive indictment against his understanding of what is required at the highest and most sophisticated level of cricket.

On his day, Sehwag is one of the most thrilling sights in cricket. No one will ever say that of Cook. What they will declare though, with minimum prompting, is that no professional sportsman ever fought so hard to keep his place as a world-class performer.

Nor did many of the great cricketers carry the same level of satisfaction he brought back to the pavilion last night. The depth of it showed when he went to commiserate with the blighted Bopara, whose cheap dismissal delivered a devastating blow to his lingering hopes of a Test comeback after a disastrous Ashes series two years ago.

Cook, in his own moment of great triumph, knew the depth of Bopara's angst.

When he came back from Down Under at the start of this year after his gluttonous assault on Aussie bowlers, he acknowledged that he was just one innings away from perhaps permanent failure last summer. He went to the Oval against Pakistan needing a significant score. He produced a century and later recalled: "The Oval 100 was really important because it kept my place in the team, even if it didn't silence all the doubts some people had. For me it was the first time I had been really under pressure for a place. Everyone outside the England set-up was saying it was my last chance but inside I also felt the pressure, though no one is going to waltz up and say you're one innings away from being dropped."

It was not said to Bopara last night, of course. He had to suffer alone the worst of a game capable of the most random cruelty.

It is the way of the highest level of sport, one that Cook has travelled along with extraordinary nerve. For him, at least, yesterday was a celebration party somewhere around the top of the world.

Record Breakers

England's highest individual scores

364: Len Hutton v Australia (1938)

336 not out: Wally Hammond v NZ (1933)

333: Graham Gooch v India (1990)

325: Andy Sandham v West Indies (1930)

310: John Edrich v NZ (1965)

294: Alastair Cook v India (2011)

England's highest team scores

903-7d v Australia (1938)

849 v West Indies (1930)

710-7d v India (2011)

658-8d v Australia (1938)

654-5 v South Africa (1939)

653-4d v India (1990)

Most recent king pairs in Tests

Virender Sehwag (Ind) v Eng (2011)

Ryan Harris (Aus) v Eng (2010)

Javed Omar (Bang) v Ind (2007)

Adam Gilchrist (Aus) v Ind (2000)

Ajit Agarkar (Ind) v Aus (1999)

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