Alastair Cook's 95 brings him back from the cricketing abyss
Even if the greatest of batsmen have the ups and downs to prove that form is a fickle mistress, Alastair Cook must still have begun to think that he would never be loved again.
27 May 2013 was the last time everything was rosy for Cook. That date is the last time he scored a Test century and the benchmark by which his subsequent failures have been compared.
By the time Cook got to Southampton for the third Test against India, he was a lonely heart teetering on the edge of the cricketing abyss, his own miserable form matched only by the wretched run of the team he leads.
For the skipper, it was 638 runs in 27 innings at an average of 23.62. Only six half-centuries in that time and a highest score in 2014 of 28. For England it was - and still is - 10 matches without a win.
|Ex-England batsman Geoffrey Boycott on Test Match Special|
|"It was a better day at the office for Cook and his team. It's better for him personally and better for the team. It will have lifted the dressing room. The selectors will be relieved. I hope they don't think everything is alright, but the captain has made runs. He got dropped off a comfortable chance, but you need a slice of luck when things are going wrong. He picked the ball off his legs, played the cover drives, worked at it and did exactly what was needed - make runs."|
Just like a serious relationship, it is hard for the reign of an England captain to end on good terms. Pressure grows, friends (and some enemies) mumble. "Wouldn't they be better off apart?"
Having said that, it's hard to remember a time when a skipper was facing such universal calls to stand down.
Former captains Michael Atherton, Michael Vaughan, Alec Stewart and Kevin Pietersen (though, admittedly, there is a touch of history there) all called for Cook to go. Even Geoffrey Boycott, who once said he'd let Cook marry his daughter, had changed his mind.
Cook repeatedly stated his desire to continue to lead his developing team, to stay together for the kids. Only he knows how close he came to jacking it in, only he knows the strain he was under when he flicked the coin on Sunday morning.
No one would have blamed the captain had he decided to bowl first. A muggy morning, some damp in the green pitch. Did his own form even cross his mind? For a captain-opening-batsman in Cook's predicament, electing to bat took all the bravery of asking a complete stranger to dance.
One, two, three interviews completed, then some time alone. Walk to the pitch, shadow some shots, imagine the ball being delivered, collect the kit and return to the dressing room to pad up. The formalities, solitude and nerves of the half-hour before a Test match.
But then, the signs that things were about to change. By just stepping back on to the outfield, Cook was greeted with an almighty roar. The Essex man may have lost the backing of respected former players, but he remains popular with large sections of England's supporters. This was 15,000 or so in Southampton telling him just that.
Even so, Cook-watching has become a sadistic national pastime. The sight of the left-hander poking and prodding his way to 22 in the second innings of the second Test at Lord's was too tense to bear.
This time, the leading man almost spared the audience hours of peeking through their fingers. The very first ball of the match edged, but short of the slips. It's hard to imagine the scale of the disaster had it carried.
Another good omen? Yes, and what was to happen next was a pure act of kismet.
Aided by some below-par India bowling, Cook was leaving well. Yet, he still could not resist the nibble that has got him in to trouble so many times over the past 14 months.
Waft at Pankaj Singh, edge to third slip. Not again? Yes, if Ravindra Jadeja could complete the simple task of moving to his left and grabbing the ball at knee height. For once, he could not.
"There's the twist," said Vaughan on Test Match Special. Cook shook his head and watched the replay on the big screen. He needed no further invitation to grow in stature.
|Highest England runscorers in Test cricket|
|8,900 - Graham Gooch (118 Tests, 1975-95)|
|8,463 - Alec Stewart (133 Tests, 1990-2003)|
|8,257 - Alastair Cook (107 Tests, 2006-to date)|
|8,231- David Gower (117 Tests, 1978-92)|
|8,181 - Kevin Pietersen (104 Tests, 2005-14)|
|8,114 - Geoff Boycott (108 Tests, 1964-82)|
Previously in this series, India have followed the blueprint devised by Australia and copied by Sri Lanka to starve Cook of short bowling and bring him forward on and outside off stump.
But here, the plans were left in the dressing room. Cook was allowed to cut and pull and, just to be on the safe side, made sure no attempt was made to score in front of square on the off side.
A back-foot drive through the covers was a slide back into a comfy sweater, the hooks classic Cook not seen for some time, all mixed in with the nudges and nurdles that are his bread and butter.
"He's avoided playing through the off side on the front foot," said Boycott. "He's collected and nurdled because that's what you have to do.
"He's played straighter, played forward and waited for the right ball, either very short or very full. He's done everything you would ask him to. Graft, work and stay in."
A standing ovation when taking lunch on 48, bettered by the sustained roar that greeted a first half-century in 10 Test innings. Double hundreds have received quieter rounds of applause.
"I got an amazing reception, even when I was walking out to bat," said Cook. "There were well-wishers even as I was walking down the stairs. I've never experienced anything like that."
Records were being ticked off, past Pietersen and David Gower to become England's third-highest Test runscorer of all time. The script was being followed exactly, the stage set, the whole audience aware of the inevitable outcome.
Except, this summer blockbuster of love reclaimed would not have a happy ending.
Into the 90s, then stop. Half an hour, 28 balls. Finally, an awful delivery from that man Jadeja. A long hop. "Hit this for four and I'll be on 99". Pull, under-edge to wicketkeeper Mahendra Dhoni.
Drowned in honey on 95, the wait to extend that England record of 25 Test hundreds goes on.
"Once or twice in a career you get out like that against a spinner," said Vaughan. "Cook will be gutted, but at the start of play if you said you'd get 95, he'd have ripped your hand off."
Cook closed his eyes and let out a sigh. Initial disappointment, but afterwards came confirmation that a score of 95 would indeed have induced the hand-ripping to which Vaughan referred.
"It's been a tough six months and it's still going to be tough," said Cook. "I feel I have a good attitude to the job and can smile through the tough times.
"Under probably the most pressure I've been under as a player, when everyone was telling me to stop doing it and that I wasn't worth my place, to score runs is a nice place to be."
It is the runs that Cook needed more than results. He is still the same leader and tactician that won the Ashes, that won in India, but with a team shorn of Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann and Matt Prior.
A transitional England can be expected to be inconsistent, but, when their captain's biggest strength is to lead from the front, they need him to do just that.
"Many of us have criticised Alastair Cook over the last few months, rightly so," said Vaughan. "But, by making the critics eat humble pie, he's on the front foot."
The humble pie isn't ready to be eaten, but it is in the oven. Only when Cook finds the magic combination of runs for himself and wins from an England team built around him will the doubters go away for good.
"You never silence everyone," he said. "That's the nature of the beast. What it's done is give me some confidence that my batting is heading in the right direction."
Cook may not have found love again just yet - the innings-without-a hundred-counter has ticked to 28, the longest run of his career.
But, at least he's won himself a few more dates.