Raise a glass to toast opener's ugly hundred

Alastair Cook is not the sort of batsman to empty bars. Even his closest friends would admit there are more pleasurable cricketing experiences than watching him bat for an entire day. But even now, after just 24 Test appearances, Cook is being tipped by many to overtake Graham Gooch as England's highest run-scorer.

That such bold predictions are being made of a player who is 6,964 runs short of English cricket's most prolific batsman shows how highly the 22-year-old is regarded, and yesterday's mightily impressive 118 gave a great example of his capabilities.

There are many cricketerswho go through an entire career without knowing exactly what sort of player they are. Some are limited but try to be expansive; others are constantly tinkering with their game, believing there is a better way. Cook, however, looked the part even before he made his Test debut in Nagpur 20 months ago.

For a batsman, it is the strokes you think you can play that is the problem. Cook knows his limitations. He is aware that no matter how hard he tries, he is never going to bat like Brian Lara, Sanath Jayasuriya or Adam Gilchrist, and he seems perfectlyhappy to accept that. It would come as no surprise to find out that he actually takes great pleasure in scoring ugly runs.

Cook's strengths are plentiful. He is brave, intelligent and ambitious. At the crease he is unflappable, against pace or spin, and he possesses a sound and simple technique.

The most encouraging thing about Cook, though, is that he is constantly improving, as has been witnessed during the Test series against Sri Lanka. He is a quick learner and he adapts to the set of circumstances that are put in front of him. In the First Test in Kandy, Chaminda Vaas had him in all sorts of trouble, trapping him lbw for nought and then luring him into playing at a ball he should have left alone on four.

They were dismissals that tend to follow one another, caused by an over-correction. As a result of trying to get his front foot outside the line of off-stump, to reduce the chances of being given out lbw, he found himself playing at wideish balls he should have left alone. In between the First and Second Tests he went away, worked things out for himself, and passed 50 in three of his next four innings. And on the occasion he failed during England's first-innings dbcle here it is disputable whether he should have been given out.

Prior to the tour it was felt that Cook's problems would start once Vaas, Lasith Malinga and Dilhara Fernando had finished their opening bursts, when Muttiah Muralitharan was introduced into the attack. Good players of spin have soft hands. They push forward gently, and when the ball hits the bat it is as though the implement is a feather pillow.

Cook goes hard at the ball, gripping the handle low down and hard. But in this series, Muralitharan did not dismiss Cook once. Test cricket's highest wicket-taker bowled enough balls at the left-hander, and there were many occasions when Cook looked like getting out, but he did not. Cook's determination allowed him to win that battle. Again it was a wonderful example of what can be achieved through hard work, a correct assessment of how to play Murali and where to try to score runs. These assets will make him a strong candidate to take over as England's captain when Vaughan decides he has had enough.

Cook may not make you down your pint but he is just the sort of dependable, solid, consistent batsman England need at the top of the order, and he will be there for many years to come.

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