Calmness is the abiding sense one gets from watching Alastair Cook bat these days. Nothing seems to ruffle him. It is as if he is playing in his own private universe and the only thing he sees is the cricket ball. It is that simple for him at the moment. See ball. Hit ball. Make hundreds.
Today’s unbeaten 136 at the Eden Gardens, his 23rd century, will be extra special though because it takes him past Wally Hammond, Geoffrey Boycott, Colin Cowdrey and Kevin Pietersen as England’s most prolific centurion. Now he stands alone at the summit.
Over the last two years, Cook has been in particularly sumptuous form, averaging 62.05 with eight hundreds from 24 Tests. Responsibility, first as Test vice-captain and now as captain, has served to inspire and focus his cricket. He has learned to turn his limitations as a stroke-maker into a strength. Bowlers can no longer get him to play shots outside his comfort zone. Instead, he forces them to bowl in his areas and picks them off when they do. His willingness to bat for long periods and wait for the right scoring opportunity make it hard for bowlers to wear him out. In a contest of patience, Cook always wins.
It has also allowed him to lead by example. Under Andrew Strauss, England climbed to the top of the Test table, but has since fallen off the pace. In that sense, Cook has inherited a team in need of reasserting itself. By making big runs – this is his fifth century in five Tests as captain – Cook has left no doubt that he can rise to the big occasion. Those sorts of performances are what lift a side and push players to give more of themselves.
Perhaps the best example of a player who thrived as captain was Imran Khan, who averaged 52 with the bat as captain against a career average of 37. On the other hand, even great players have been weighed down by leadership – Ian Botham struggled at the helm of England and while Sachin Tendulkar’s form did not suffer drastically, the responsibility of leading India clearly affected him mentally and he did not fully embrace it. Cook, however, has shown he has a similar temperament to Imran that does not allow the pressure of leading a side to weigh him down. In this way, he continues a recent tradition of England captains, such as Michael Vaughn and Andrew Strauss, who embraced being leaders. Captaincy brought out the best in them, as it seems to be doing with Cook.
Cook’s calmness under pressure in this series is also what has allowed England to wrest the momentum from India and has stood in marked contrast to his more celebrated counterpart’s demeanour as well. He did not allow their loss in the first Test to knock his team down and they bounced back to ambush India in Mumbai. In a way, Cook represents who MS Dhoni was when the latter first took over as Indian captain. There is a hunger and a determination to win that is reminiscent of how Dhoni began as captain, especially in the limited overs version of the game. That Dhoni was not afraid of trying new tactics, or players, and always backed himself to bail his side out of trouble. In Tests at least, and in contrast to Cook in this series, Dhoni looks jaded and is quick to get defensive when things do not go his way. Dhoni may be ‘Captain Cool’ but that moniker seems to fit his opponent better at the moment.
Cook is still two weeks shy of his 28th birthday and will likely score many more hundreds for England. He is already a batting legend. But he is showing in this series that he is a smart and resourceful captain too who is unafraid of taking difficult decisions (such as dropping vice-captain Stuart Broad for the third Test). If he can beat India in India in his first series as captain since Stauss’ retirement, especially after the way they lost in Ahmedabad, it is likely to be a record he will savour just as much.