At the denouement of a series as brief as it was interesting as it was exciting, one thing is certain: Alastair Cook should not be dropped from the England team. In the dark places where we hang out between stints checking the 51allout postbox for the long-awaited free beer, there were some ne’er-do-wells advocating this, just a few weeks ago. But mercifully for England’s sake, Cook has transformed himself, again. At the end of the West Indies series, his rolling average (something that we invented but have since lost down the back of the sofa) was looking impressive, but his actual batting still looked rather shaky. He was lunging forward when driving, waving his bat uncertainly outside off stump and not so much playing down the wrong line as playing down the wrong kind of public transport system altogether.
But sometime in the second innings at Lord’s everything seemed to click. He began to play the ball late, even when his weight was on the front foot, and when leaving the ball he looked more assured than he had for at least two years. Whereas not long ago there was a slight chance that Graham Gooch’s longstanding record wouldn’t be broken for several years, once more it was inevitable that Cook would surpass his mentor. It’s no exaggeration to say that Cook had looked capable of breaking this record when still in his early twenties; only in the summer of 2010 and the winter of 2014/15 did it seem any different.
With this in mind, we bribed the 51allout stats department with a voucher for 50p off a bottle of Gordon’s finest and convinced them to dust off their databases. And lo:
This clearly shows the big dip of the past two years and the more minor dip of the summer of 2010, when he didn’t reach a score of 30 until a century against Pakistan at the Oval. It also shows an overall batting average fluctuating nicely in the mid-high 40s (grazing into the 50s just once after his initial ten matches). It is fair to say that 9,000 Test runs by the age of 31 is mighty impressive, even without breaking a national record without breaking sweat.
Back in the 1990s we remember David Gower breaking Geoffrey Boycott’s Test record and a junior version of us saying that Gooch wouldn’t surpass it: we’d underestimated the staying power of Gooch, even in his 40s. But both Gooch and Gower only knocked the record on a little bit: they were dropped or retired not long after. But Cook could lay down a target to challenge England players for many years to come.
But first we need to predict what will happen with the captaincy. Cook has been full-time Test captain for less than three years, with a rather mixed record in that period, both in terms of scores and results. Clearly a determined man, he must fancy doing the job for a while yet though, especially now he is back in form and has a young team under his command. We suspect that he will last longer than the summer, unless Australia give England another damn good thrashing: anything closer than 3-1 and he will cling on. The winter includes tricky trips to the UAE (probably) and South Africa (definitely). These will probably be the limit to Cook’s captaincy, unless he leads his team to victory in one or the other of the campaigns. Obviously leaving the job this soon would break the traditional cycle, so perhaps he will hang on until 2017 and the return of Graeme Smith as South African coach to see yet another England captain leave his job in tears.
But let’s assume we are correct and by this time next year Joe Root is doing the tossing against Angelo Mathews. Although Cook is married with a young daughter, we don’t think he will retire from Test cricket just because he is no longer captain. For starters, he doesn’t have limited overs cricket to fall-back on, let alone a lucrative contract warming benches in the IPL. Secondly, he’ll only be 31 and, at least until now, has remained impressively fit. Therefore, sadly for his sheep he won’t be back on the farm permanently for a few more years, probably until after the 2019 Ashes.
That is, we calculate, an amazing 58 Tests away, which is more than half his current career. So where does that take him? Those 9,000 runs so far have included two big lulls, so it’s not outrageous to suggest he could continue at a similar career average for the next few years. Although Sachin Tendulkar’s 15,921 looks further away than Sachin Tendulkar looks when viewed the wrong way down a telescope, second-place on the all-time list is Ricky Ponting with 13,378. It would take a lot of effort to get there, mixed with continuing form and fitness, but they are all things this man currently has in abundance. Go well, you sweatless, slightly weird and freaky-footed God.