Under the Leeds sun, while the crowd celebrated, the master and his pupil flourished. Alastair Cook is playing the 114th match of a Test career that goes back to 2006, a madcap dash from Antigua to Nagpur, and 164 runs on his debut there as a precursor to his record-breaking.
It has been a wonderful journey, not without its tribulations, but exemplary for its unswerving determination to succeed. For Adam Lyth, the ninth opening partner Cook has had, in his second match, this one on his home ground, the journey has barely begun, albeit in the finest style.
It was 35 minutes after lunch when Cook made his own slice of England cricket history in a match that had already seen Jimmy Anderson reach 400 Test wickets. Cook had begun his innings requiring 32 runs to reach 8,901 and so overtake his coach and mentor, Graham Gooch, as England’s highest Test run-scorer and he never looked like falling short.
There was none of the nail-biting that accompanied the hundred in Barbados that secured the resurrection of his Test career.
That innings was a release, a man unburdened. It was business as usual, just as it had been at Lord’s where he moved seamlessly into ball after ball, his response to each delivery automatic, rather than stilted, all thought directed to the ball coming at him. It is the very definition of the rhythm of batting.
There may have been times in the past two years where even to reach 32 would have been considered a minor triumph but now it was almost an inevitable milestone on a longer journey.
He picked off his boundaries: a couple of leg glances off Tim Southee and Trent Boult; a cover drive from Southee, although it took a full half-volley to get him to unfurl this. When Matt Henry tried to tempt him with the bouncer, he had time enough to pull it down, along the ground to the midwicket rope.
He went in to lunch one boundary away but was more circumspect afterwards, as Brendon McCullum abandoned his policy of all-out attack and opted instead to try to dry things up.
Cook had added two more when he faced Southee again. McCullum tried to distract him by keeping him waiting. At Lord’s, with Cook on 99, he virtually fenced him on the offside with close fielders, to no avail: he simply pushed the ball past them.
Now McCullum was in deep conversation with Southee. Cook stepped aside and waited. The field adjusted and the batsman made a mental note, counting them out, noting the placements. He defended studiously, scratched his mark and walked away, as he does after every ball. He attempted to cut, an ugly swat, and missed. Scratch, walk, concentrate. Now Southee went full and a little wider, Cook leaned forward, opened the face of his bat and steered it precisely through point to the boundary in front of the West Stand.
Immediately the crowd stood and applauded. No, it was more than that. They cheered, real hats-thrown-in-the-air cheering.
The Black Caps applauded, too, for they are a team generous of spirit. A large banner was unfurled, celebrating his achievement, just as had been done for Anderson. And still they stood and cheered until eventually the game had to proceed even as the noise had yet to subside. This was genuine acclaim, recognition of a great England cricketer, from the harshest critics in the land. Somewhere his detractors were kicking their cats.
It is tempting to see this as the pinnacle of Cook’s career but he is, or ought to be, in his prime. He is not yet halfway into his 31st year and he has more Test runs at his age, and more centuries, 27, than any other player. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.
Yet consider the career of the man whose run total he has now exceeded. At the same age Gooch had scored no more than 2,540 Test runs and four of his eventual 20 centuries. In other words Gooch scored 6,360 runs after his 30th birthday, with 16 hundreds.
There is no guarantee of such longevity for Cook, either physically or mentally, given the intensity of international scheduling these days, or even in his ambition.
He may prefer the agricultural life sooner rather than later. But when he was out for 75 he had accumulated 8,944 runs. After his debut match this correspondent, in a fit of euphoria, predicted that Cook would be the first England batsman to 10,000 runs. It may be true but also have been a gross underestimate of his potential.
Hypothetically, were he to match Gooch’s late-flowering achievement, he would in the fullness of time, accrue 15,304 runs, more than Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis (13,378 and 13,289 respectively), Rahul Dravid and Kumar Sangakkara (13,288 and 12,203) and another seven batsman currently in front of him in the list. Only Sachin Tendulkar, 15,921, would stand, omnipotent, above him.
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