You could have bet the house, the family silver, the car and the cat on Alastair Cook making a century and batting through the day. There was never any doubt.
Cook has made hundreds for England around the globe, in all circumstances, in adversity, when he seems at his best, and occasionally with a freedom that always tends to surprise. But in the Zayed Stadium, there was something almost feudal about it: a lord of his 22-yard bleached and parched manor ruthlessly and methodically extracting his dues from the poor, downtrodden serfs whose lot in life is to fling a leather rag of a ball for his personal delectation. There are times when the game of cricket has a particular cruelty all of its own.
It is said that in practice before the Test, such was the intense heat and humidity Cook discovered a few beads of sweat on his brow, and wondered if he was leaking. Cook, famously, would drive manufacturers of antiperspirants into penury. He probably just evaporates a little.
Certainly there was no such sign of moisture in mid-afternoon after he had pushed a long half-volley tantalisingly to the extra-cover boundary to move to his 28th Test century. He does not fist-pump or grandstand, never has. Understated always, from his first in Nagpur nine years ago, to this the routine (how nice to be able to have a routine for acknowledging Test hundreds) has varied little: helmet removed and held diffidently above shoulder height, bat raised, an acknowledgement to team-mates and supporters sitting in the shade of the stand (a good crowd, with a real Pakistani atmosphere), and then a private glance at the sky.
Finally, he rescratched his guard and settled down again. On days like this, when he has been given a blank cheque, Cook is in for the long haul. For him, reaching a century is not the endgame but merely a milestone to be passed on a longer journey.
Among great batsman (and Cook can be regarded as a great England batsman) there is a certain pragmatism that allows them to delve into their locker of tools and select those appropriate to the job. They can rationalise their game and use only what they need to get the job done.
Cook is different, if not unique. What he uses – the cut, occasional pull, clip off his toes, work off his hips, and a sort of gentle bottom-hand shove into the covers is all he has ever had as run-scoring shots. Against spin, he sweeps, choosing the line carefully so as to remove lbw from the equation.
There are no big boundary clearers. This is a batsman who has made the utmost of what he has been given and married them to an unwavering concentration and determination, grounded in the uncompromising discipline of the St Paul’s Cathedral choir.
Cook will resume his innings on the fourth day on 168 of England’s 290 for three, with licence to continue as he has been. The game as a contest has long since died and the pitch, barring the occasional ball that bit and turned gently, is as unforgiving as it was when play began on Tuesday.
Perhaps it will spin eventually, perhaps not. When, in the final session, the 703rd delivery of spin in the match failed to produce a wicket, it became the longest barren spell for spinners in any Test. This in a match where spin was expected to play a significant role.
Only three times over more than eight hours did Cook give the slightest cause for concern. He was on 101, the start of a quiet period after reaching his hundred from 180 balls, when for once, he attempted to sweep the left-arm spin of Zulfiqar Babar from on the line of the stumps, a misjudgment, and was struck on the pad. Not out, said the umpire but it went to review and looked bad for him. Instead Hawk-Eye showed the ball to be missing leg stump.
On the first day Cook had escaped lbw on review by a smidgen. Later, when 147, he attempted to sweep Zulfiqar again, top edged, only for a substitute fielder, Fawad Alam, to drop the catch at square leg.
It says much for the determination of Ian Bell, and the soporific nature of the pitch, that he too survived most of the afternoon, after a torrid period before lunch in which he might have been batting blindfold. There is a fundamental difference why Cook, who by the end of this tour may overtake Jacques Kallis as having scored more runs in Asia than any non-Asian (they have the same number of hundreds, eight), succeeds against spin while players such as Bell can struggle. Essentially, Cook plays with the bat pushed ahead of his pad, while Bell plays bat and pad together, dangerous when the balls slides on from the left-armer. Before the interval he survived lbw shouts and a pad-bat chance to silly point.
After lunch he was more composed, batting late into the day before he drove a wide ball to backward point, having made 63. That England decided then to send in Mark Wood as the nightwatchman was a laughable decision: there was some justice in that he lasted seven balls and Joe Root had to take the crease after all. There is a time and place and this was not it.
Earlier, Cook and Moeen Ali had taken their opening partnership to 116, England’s highest for that wicket since Cook and Adam Lyth put on 177 against New Zealand at Headingley in the summer. Moeen had batted stoically for his 35 from 131 balls, almost a role reversal with Cook who had 74 at that stage, until he nibbled outside off stump at one which left him slightly off the pitch and was caught low down by the wicketkeeper.
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