No one's laughing now as Cook perfects the art of one-day batting
Comedians, it is said, are frequently desperate to play Hamlet. Alastair Cook is brilliantly performing the opposite of this, the earnest, strait-laced Test batsman now cracking a series of one-day one-liners.
His 80 not out at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday night was but the latest glittering example of a player transmogrified. The innings came from 63 balls as England made mincemeat of a target of 188 from 23 overs.
When Cook took over the one-day captaincy earlier this season, having had a dress rehearsal in Bangladesh last year, it was widely proposed by almost anyone who was not a selector that he was not up to it. The observation that he had neither the range nor power of shot seemed perfectly valid.
His response has been overwhelming. It has not only been the weight of runs but the pace at which they have come. The critics have been scattered to the four winds where Cook now appears capable of hitting his strokes.
It is not always a comfortable sight and it is never elegant. But Cook somehow is forcing himself to adapt, playing shots down the ground and clearing the front leg to whip it to cow corner. Instead of carrying Yorick's skull he has a water-spraying carnation.
He has said: "It is not about proving the critics wrong, it is about winning games for England." But if the critics had not been proved wrong, the games would not have been won. England sneaked home 3-2 against Sri Lanka, the beaten World Cup finalists in July, and are now 1-0 ahead against India, the winners with three matches to play.
That this has been achieved so far in conditions alien to sub-continental batsman should not detract from Cook's skill in leading from the front. It is part of his quiet, steadfast character, but those who admire these qualities – among them the India coach, Duncan Fletcher, who knows a great deal about batting method – can never have expected this.
Ravi Bopara, who came up with Cook through the Essex ranks, said: "I think getting the captaincy is helping him. He has the sense of responsibility." Cook knew that with his role as captain had to come runs. England, whatever they say, knew they were taking a risk. A line had been drawn under his one-day career in 2008 when his fierce concentration and determination could not overcome other limitations of footwork and front-foot play.
His 23 innings until then had brought 702 runs but a strike rate of 68.16 runs per 100 balls was playing into the opposition's hands. Quietly, he returned to the Test ranks. There he might have stayed but when Andrew Strauss withdrew from the limited-overs game, England turned to Cook as a replacement. They had been pleased with what they saw in the three matches he played in Bangladesh early in 2010 and were convinced he could adjust.
The first glimmers of what he might be capable of appeared in the late summer of 2009 when he was not required by England and scored three rapid one-day hundreds for Essex. He remodelled his approach with his mentor, Graham Gooch, and if Gooch did not know it before he recognised then that there was a one-day player waiting to come out.
The 10 matches in which Cook has led England have brought him 538 runs from 553 balls, a strike rate of 97.29, which is higher than Adam Gilchrist's. This summer is now 101.26, above a run a ball. Although he hit a six on Tuesday night, it was still only his second in one-day internationals (he has hit 31 others in his professional career to show that they are not quite as rare as might be supposed).
But he is piercing the field with much greater alacrity. Those first 23 innings brought 77 fours, his 10 as captain have brought 60. Before, he was hitting a four every 13 balls, now it is a four every nine balls.
A one-day tour of India in October will tell us more. But when the serious actor first wanted to play the comic they cannot have expected this. Nobody, as they say, is laughing now.
* Jade Dernbach and Craig Kieswetter have both been awarded incremental contracts by England, the level below a central contract.
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