Alastair Cook was asked after his 294 against India if he could think of anything, anything at all — crudities excepted, of course — that afforded him as much pleasure over 13 hours as batting so obviously did. He could think of nothing. Which might be surprising for a 26-year-old, particularly one that has had a taste of the good life.
For Cook, however, batting is the good life. When he's at the crease, the joie de vivre isn't immediately apparent, his batsmanship is too stiffly methodical to create that impression; but the joy underneath it all, his love for the activity of run-making, is clear to anyone that has strapped on a pair of pads.
There are batsmen, Ian Bell for instance, to whom a beautifully correct technique comes naturally. Then there are those like V.V.S. Laxman who fashion a style of their own, but appeal aesthetically to a wide audience. Cook is neither: the shape of his batting is odd-angled and boxy, strange for so tall a man, especially one that bats left-handed; there's little about the physicality of Cook's batting that suggests he is special.
Yet after 71 Tests, his record loses only a little in comparison to that of the great Sachin Tendulkar at the same stage, and Tendulkar is clearly special. Cook has played more innings (124 to Tendulkar's 113) and scored more runs (5834 to 5780), but averages fewer (49.86 to 57.22). Cook has 19 centuries to Tendulkar's 22. There are other factors to consider, one of them being that Cook has played more in England, combating the new ball, but that the quality of bowling has declined from the 1990s to the 2000s.
What this shows however (apart from the possibility that Cook may at some stage threaten Tendulkar's tally of Test centuries) is that there are different ways of being successful. Every batsman is given different gifts, and run-hunger and the intuitive facility to grasp the craft of scoring are just as valuable as exceptional physical skill.
Cook's appetite for runs is insatiable, a quality that's only been enhanced by Graham Gooch, for long his mentor at Essex and now England's batting coach. “It's mad, isn't it, how you can still be disappointed when you score 290-odd?” Cook said after the innings. “I suppose only cricket can do that to you. You've got to look at it properly, and I should look at the 294 I actually scored rather than the six I didn't. But I think Goochie's mantra of ‘You've never got enough' has really rubbed off on our batting group.”
Gooch has also been instrumental in streamlining Cook's game, not just suggesting alterations in backswing and trigger movement, but actually throwing ball after ball to help the opener groove the modifications so they became instinctive.
Cook had trouble with falling over — India's swing-bowlers have shown this up on occasion — and flirting outside the off-stump. The root of these worries was a stiff front leg that forced him to play around it to access the leg-side and push away from his body to score through the off-side. Tall men struggle with control of their body; the exact movements needed for a repeatable technique come less naturally. (Kevin Pietersen is a freak, but even he works extremely hard to keep his expansive game in order).
“Goochie's almost worked harder to change my technique than I have,” Cook said after making his tenth century, in South Africa in late 2009, with his newly developed method.
It took a while to settle: six Tests in the English summer of 2010 brought only 226 runs at 22.60. But Australia — where his game, save during a century at Perth, had been taken apart by the mechanical precision of Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark in 2006-07 — offered redemption, albeit against a lesser attack.
Three centuries — two of which were “Daddy Hundreds”, Gooch's choice of term for an innings over 150, and the other, 148 — marked an enormously successful tour. Cook's ability to bat long in trying conditions was striking.
His innate endurance (a less-recognised physical gift, like his knack for working the ball to the on-side) helped him on two levels. He was so fit that he barely broke a sweat, and this fitness in turn allowed him to concentrate better, his body making few demands of the mind.
As India's bowlers now know, you either get Cook early (like in the first two Tests) or not at all (well, they did eventually get him in the third, but it barely registered).