Now it is Pietersen's turn to convince the selectors
Pressure switches to the England No 4 as his poor summer continues and Cook finally finds form
Saturday 21 August 2010
Most batsmen have been there at one time or another.
And while the last chance saloon is no-one's favourite port of call, those who emerge from it with eyes bright and head held high are almost always better for the experience.
Kevin Pietersen may be the next England batsman on the way in after flopping again yesterday. A desperately scratchy 80 at Edgbaston a fortnight ago is the best he can boast this summer following two more flops here, but at least Alastair Cook is breathing easily once more.
Whether or not another failure would have seen Cook left out of this summer's final Test and then omitted from the squad to tour Australia is now immaterial. The Essex batsman ended all debate by scoring a terrific century yesterday and, in all probability, will never look back. Well, not until the next crisis, anyway.
Given that cricket teams usually contain half a dozen specialist batsmen, it is almost inevitable that at least one of them will be short of runs at any given time. But it is when the failure to contribute a decent score not only stretches to five or six matches but also coincides with a temporarily faulty technique and a palpable lack of confidence, that alarm bells start ringing.
Of England's current top order, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood have walked out to bat for England knowing that one more flop would almost certainly see them cast into the wilderness while Pietersen is trying quite a few people's patience of late. And Jonathan Trott and Eoin Morgan can rest assured their turn will come.
When Trott, Morgan and Pietersen do find themselves in desperate need of a sizeable contribution they can only hope to bump into opponents as obliging as Pakistan were yesterday morning. Cook's imagination may have told him that the sign on the gate which stands between pavilion steps and Oval outfield said "Last Chance Saloon" but, in fact, it read "Home from Home".
No snarling bartender here. Instead, deep-set slip fielders watched edges from Cook bounce in front of them. Then, when another chance flew from the opener's bat at a perfectly acceptable height, neither Imran Farhat nor Yasir Hameed moved a muscle in their positions to the left of wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal.
Still, if Happy Hour came early at this watering hole then at least Cook had the good sense to take full advantage (in a responsible manner, of course), and it was evident from the outset that regulars and occasional visitors alike among a capacity crowd of 23,000 were willing him on his way.
By the time Cook reached 50 he was pretty close to being back to his best with feet moving more purposefully and bat coming down straight. And would you credit it? The drinks were on the house – in the shape of Mohammad Asif's wayward throw – when Cook was looking for four gift-wrapped runs to take him to a century.
Strauss and Collingwood, standing on the dressing-room balcony to salute Cook's special moment, will have known how their team-mate felt as he raised his bat and breathed a sigh of relief.
Two summers ago there was no doubt Collingwood had run out of last chances when he emerged from the Edgbaston pavilion to face South Africa. He had already been dropped once that series and a first-innings failure in Birmingham left many people wondering about the wisdom of his recall.
Rather like Cook yesterday, Collingwood began tentatively before telling himself to start fighting back. The end result was one of the most character-filled innings of recent times, and England's No 5 has scarcely looked back since making 135 on a day which he later described as "one I will never forget".
Strauss did even better in Napier in early 2008 – at least in figure terms – by making 177 against New Zealand after 30 Test innings without a century. In truth, it was a horribly stodgy knock, but a failure there might well have ended Strauss's international career and prevented him from becoming an Ashes-winning captain.
While managing to keep a lid on their emotions, Cook, Collingwood and Strauss celebrated their vital hundreds joyously enough to show how much the milestone meant to them. But some people just have to let it all out.
Step forward Nasser Hussain. Having been told by just about everybody that he was no longer the right man to bat first wicket down in one-day internationals, England's then captain went racing towards the media centre at Lord's, pointing furiously at the No 3 on the back of his shirt, after taking a century off India during the summer of 2002.
Unfortunately for Hussain, England lost that match. The same thing may happen here, but nothing will detract from the significance of Cook's achievement.
The Oval Timeline: The Third Day's Events
11.00: Alastair Cook, the pressure of the world on his batting shoulders, leaves the first ball of the day and to the relief of The Oval is off the mark to the second, a gentle nudge into the off-side.
11.05: He caresses Mohammad Aamer for four through the off-side, which should calm a few nerves.
11.20: In successive balls, Cook, reaching outside off stump, edges and prods, though safely, wide of second slip.
11.40: Nighwatchman Jimmy Anderson, who has gone almost completely unnoticed, edges Saeed Ajmal's first ball of the day and is caught behind. Anderson has done his job.
11.45: Attention back to Cook as his attempted cut flies in the air between first and second slip, who leave it for each other as it races for four.
11.56: More certainly, Cook cuts again and this four brings him to 33, his highest Test score of the summer.
12.32: A clipped single takes Cook to 50 from 77 balls and puts England into the lead.
2.18: With two fours in three balls, both cuts against Ajmal, Cook races through the nineties.
2.28: Cook, in the most bizarre fashion, reaches his 13th Test hundred. He props forward to Asif, who picks up and returns to the wicketkeeper but the intended lob is way above Kamran Akmal's head and goes for four overthrows. It is Cook's 16th four from his 148th ball.
3.00: Cook is out when he flicks a le- side ball to the wicketkeeper. Unlucky perhaps, but his career is saved.
4.06: The collapse begins with Pietersen, who essays a drive at Ajmal and is bowled.
4.12: Jonathan Trott, having batted for 207 minutes for 36, slices to gully.
4.27: Paul Collingwood, so often defiant, hurls a drive at Aamer for reasons known only to himself and nicks it.
4.34: Eoin Morgan, feeling the heat of Test cricket, is left bewildered by Ajmal.
4.51: Prior chooses the wrong line to Aamer and he too edges behind.
5.09: Swann, cramped for space, misses his attempted cut and has his middle stump knocked back.
5.15: The floodlights may be on but bad light stops play. Only in cricket.
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