There have been plenty of glowing tributes to Alastair Cook, the England Test batsman and former captain, who announced his international retirement this week after an outstanding Test career that has brought him considerably more runs – 12,254 – than any other Englishman in history. The next on the list, with 8,900 runs, is Graham Gooch.
In the past 48 hours, Cook, who will make his 161st and final Test appearance when England play India at The Oval, has variously been described as “a true great of English Test cricket” and “one of the very best batsmen to have played Test cricket for England”.
In one online poll, moreover, 44 per cent judged Cook to have been the greatest English Test batsman of all time. Are you kidding me?! Do this 44 per cent seriously think Cook’s Test career has outshone those of batting gods like Jack Hobbs or Herbert Sutcliffe? Anyone for Wally Hammond or Len Hutton? Denis Compton or Ken Barrington?
Don’t get me wrong, Cook’s Test career has been laudable in many aspects. A naturally less gifted shot maker than many of his contemporaries or predecessors, he has indubitably made the most of his (still considerable) talents, thanks in no small part to an extraordinary melange of mental fortitude and supreme physical fitness.
Astonishingly, The Oval match will be Cook’s 159th successive Test appearance, a world record that will quite probably never be broken, given the direction that cricket is seemingly taking. A supreme puller and cutter against the quicker bowlers, he has also excelled against spin – and especially so on the dry, subcontinental pitches in India, where his record was exceptional.
But Cook is more a product of his generation, rather than one of the true greats among English Test batsmen. To score 12,254 Test runs is clearly not to be sniffed at, even if he has played 160 Tests. But an average of 44.88, although very good, pales significantly when compared to the Test deeds of Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hammond, Hutton and Barrington, who all averaged in excess of 55, with Sutcliffe averaging more than 60. And those players, let’s not forget, didn’t have the modern advantages of covered pitches and protective helmets.
Cook’s Test career, furthermore, has scarcely coincided with a golden age of bowling. He caught only the tail end of Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble, a triumvirate of spinners for the ages, while the closest he came to genuinely fearsome fast bowling à la Lillee and Thomson or Messrs Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Garner was probably Mitchell Johnson and maybe Dale Steyn.
In fact, Cook wasn’t even the best English batsman of his generation, with that accolade going to either Kevin Pietersen, who displayed batting talents hitherto unseen at the highest level while averaging 47.28, or Joe Root, who averages over 50.
Cook is a very, very good Test batsman, but I’m not sure that history will judge him to have been one of England’s “true greats”.