Alastair Cook optimistic for bright future with England’s new ‘old-fashioned’ openers

Exclusive interview: Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley produced England’s first 100 opening stand since December 2016

Alastair Cook has been impressed with what he’s seen from England’s openers
Alastair Cook has been impressed with what he’s seen from England’s openers

England’s series win in South Africa was built around a return to old-fashioned values. An ability to take the shine off the new ball and gradually wear down the opposition attack.

It wasn’t what you would term sexy cricket but the straight-laced pairing of Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley offered a throwback to the days when Alastair Cook would blunt and frustrate opening bowlers around the world.

Little wonder then, that the man himself enjoyed England’s new approach to addressing an age-old problem.

“I know it’s old-fashioned boring cricket in one sense but Test cricket can be old-fashioned and fairly basic at times,” he says. “They did the job of seeing off the new ball. You saw Dominic Sibley get that hundred at Cape Town and then Crawley getting a start in most of his innings after coming in for Rory Burns.

“I think they both looked good. All of a sudden we’ve got players who can either open or bat in the top three, so there’s that competition for places that we’ve been missing.

“Full credit to those guys and hopefully they can kick on. It will be a different challenge in Sri Lanka because they will be playing in very, very different conditions. Part of the challenge is always adapting to those changes but I’m sure they’ll be fine. Two away wins on the bounce would be a huge achievement.”

The century partnership recorded by Sibley and Crawley in the first innings of the final Test in Johannesburg was England’s first hundred opening stand since December 2016, which gives some indication of the problems that England have endured at the top of the order. Replacing Andrew Strauss – who retired in August 2012 – was hard enough, but finding someone to fill Cook’s own run-strewn shoes looked like being an impossible job. Until now.

With Burns likely to be back in contention for a place before England’s home series against the West Indies, Joe Root suddenly has a wealth of options. And after that series win in South Africa, a gloomy Test year in 2019 – when England failed to win a single series for the first time since 1999 – seems a long way off.

Cook helped out with Gray-Nicolls’ Tree Legacy Programme (Gray-Nicolls)

“If you go back to after that first Test in South Africa, a lot of things weren’t going right, mainly off the field,” he says. “To win away after losing the opening match of the series is incredibly hard. Of the 15 days of Test cricket (that followed) England pretty much won every one of them playing good consistent cricket. To do that over a long period is very good and I think you’re starting to see the shape of a side that has strength in depth in certain places, that we might not have had in the past.

“It’s very encouraging.”

Cook is a man who knows a fair bit about the relentless schedule of an international cricket. Since 2005, when he first broke into the Essex first team, his winters have generally been taken up by lengthy overseas assignments with his country. Now, though, he can combine his time on his farm with a pre-season for the current county champions.

“It’s obviously different compared with what you’re used to,” says the former England captain. “But it’s nice to be at home and I’m actually going on a pre-season tour in a few weeks time with Essex. It will be nice to get away and see a bit of sun.

“To go on three tours in one winter is a big ask for those England players, particularly those who are playing all three formats. That’s pretty much five months away to then go straight into the English summer or the IPL (Indian Premier League). That’s a lot of cricket.”

Having retired with a tally of 12,472 runs in September 2018, Cook was given a reminder of his achievements in England colours when he planted 33 willow trees as part of Gray-Nicolls’ Tree Legacy Programme.

From now on, every time an international player scores a hundred with a Gray-Nicolls bat a tree will be planted and a kit will be sent to a club or school of the players’ choice.

“It was slightly embarrassing having to plant 33 trees but it will be quite cool in 15 or 20 years when they’re fully grown,” he says.

Since he called it a day, in the Test arena England have sometimes struggled to see the wood for the trees themselves.

After winning in South Africa, the picture suddenly looks a whole lot clearer.

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