Alastair Cook bottomed out in the first five minutes of his MCG innings on Wednesday. A dinky leading edge off his second ball, beaten for pace on his fourth and, sixth ball, an attempted pull shot that dragged the ball down between his pads and somehow past the stumps. Already on this morning, the slow pitch had produced three drag-ons. One more would have taken the Test match past Game of Thrones.
Such a nervous start portended more of the same misery for Cook, but instead it was a darkest-hour-before-the-dawn moment. Moments after surviving what would have been the mother of all drag-ons, he struck two pure drives each side of the bowler, Jackson Bird. Neither produced a run, but they transformed the confidence of a batsman who had not stepped forward and driven an Australian bowler with authority since 2011.
And so he was off on his journey of rediscovery. A flick off the hip was so perfectly timed it sped past the deep fielder, before a vintage pull shot revived the Cook of old. Even this early in his innings, it was as if he knew something.
His recent bogey man, Nathan Lyon, was brought into the attack as early as the seventh over, but Cook was fearless. Things were shifting in his favour. The pace of the wicket was more akin to a dry English summer strip, Mitchell Starc was cooling his heel, and Pat Cummins had the runs. When Cummins overpitched, Cook drove majestically, a significant moment in itself because for seven years bowlers had been able to serve up half-volleys with impunity. A batsman steered by the desire to avoid risk, Cook had for a long time treated the drive as a potential nick. Now, with edges unlikely to carry and the ball not deviating, he saw a full ball as other batsmen see it: a Christmas gift.
Cook’s birthday is on Christmas, and he began seizing upon the Australian bowlers’ errors as if he would get the chance to celebrate only once a year. He waited on the shorter ball and cut it off his stumps. Soon he was so bold as to play that shot off good-length balls. He watched Mark Stoneman and James Vince lose their wickets, so lost in his own cocoon of concentration, perhaps, that he did not hear the inside edge that would have spared the latter. This was very much the old Cook, standing firm as his partners ticked over like pages on his Rolodex. Somewhere the tide of inevitability turned. Cook has looked like a walking wicket for quite a while against Australia.
Through the afternoon, it seemed more and more inevitable that he was not going anywhere. His encampment on the MCG turned from a visit into a tent embassy into something more and more solid. In the first over after tea, he put Cummins away to the square boundaries on both sides of the wicket. A clip off the pads brought up the half-century, humbly acknowledged. Cook was Cook again, just as, hours earlier, Stuart Broad had returned to Stuart Broad.
For an hour-and-a-half after tea, Steve Smith kept Lyon out of the attack, which also favoured Cook. Only when Mitchell Marsh took the ball did Cook’s focus waver, or perhaps heat and fatigue were setting in. He survived an lbw appeal first ball, then back-cut a four. Fifth ball, Tim Paine moved up to the stumps and donned the helmet. Steve Smith sat Paine’s cap on top of his own. Marsh pitched up, Cook drove and nicked. Smith fumbled the catch low to his right and the chance, cleverly plotted, was missed.
It can’t be said that Cook didn’t deserve his luck. As he moved towards his first century against Australia in seven years and 24 Test matches, Cook brought all of the patience and method that he kept asserting he still had in him. Here was the familiar routine between deliveries: scratching out his guard with the outside of his right foot, walking away, adjusting his helmet by gripping the left side of his grill, a tweak of the left pad flap, into the tall man’s ungainly stance, the double-pumped backlift.
For someone who has played so much cricket, Cook always plays with a slight jump, as if surprised by the ball. But all of this is, to English eyes, a kind of comfort food, their highest accumulator back doing this thing, as if he’s been batting forever. When Joe Root joined him, the new captain drew strength from the old, and English bats took advantage of the momentum swing in this match that had been initiated by their bowlers.
In the end, Smith brought himself on to bowl the day’s final over. Cook needed seven runs for his hundred. From Smith it was two gifts in one day, like a birthday on Christmas. As Cook always plays the ball, the century arrived late. Too late to save the Ashes but never too late to save a career.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.