As England begin a long winter of Test cricket in Asia, the primary focus for them will be on spin, both bowling it and batting against it. England have one man with a brilliant record of playing spin bowling in Asia, and it isn’t the glory boys of the middle order—it is opener Alastair Cook.
The captain has scored 2,252 Test runs in Asia (not including the first Test against Bangladesh that ended on Monday), the most ever by an England player. In Asia, he averages 60.86, the most by any England player who has played 10 innings or more on that continent.
Cook has more runs at a better average in Asia than Hashim Amla, Michael Clarke, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and A.B. de Villiers. In fact, Cook has more runs in Asia than any non-Asian batsman in the history of Test cricket.
He doesn’t score runs in an ostentatious way, with flourishes of the bat and exaggerated back-lifts. It doesn’t look pretty.
As Nasser Hussain told The Daily Mail when Cook was approaching 10,000 Test runs, it might not look like it should work, but it does. “He has never looked a natural player against spin but just look at the phenomenal record against it ever since he flew from the Caribbean to Nagpur and made a century on Test debut against India 10 years ago.”
There are none of the fleet-of-foot dashes down the pitch that you get with Clarke or Amla. There is none of the aggressive cross-batted shots that you see from de Villiers. Cook basically has three shots against spin bowlers.
He cuts the ball if it is too short. He works it off his legs if it is off-line. He plays the slog sweep over wide mid-wicket if he gets bogged down. That’s it.
When Cook bats, it is so much more about the shots he doesn’t play. He knows his game and plays the percentages better than a card-counting Blackjack player on a hot run in Las Vegas.
To find the next most successful English batsman in terms of average in Asia, you have to go all the way back to David Gower, and the contrast could not be more stark. Both are left-handed but that is where the comparison ends. While Gower was one of the great artists with bat in hand, Cook is more of a painter and decorator splashing whitewash on the walls.
But where Gower was liable to gift his wicket away, Cook has never been so profligate. It is this unwillingness to get out that sets Cook apart from all those who went before him, even when they were more naturally gifted.
Combined with his patience and ability to wait for balls that he can score off with limited risk, Cook is also one of the fittest men in cricket.
As he belligerently marched his way to 263 against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi last year in the blistering desert heat, he barely broke sweat in his 14 hours at the crease. He was only off the field for 26 overs across the five days, yet he rarely looked weary.
There is something very mechanistic about Cook, both as a batsman and as a captain. At times, this is as much a weakness as it is a strength, but in the end he backs himself to succeed using his simple methodology. It is as much see-ball-hit-ball as Virender Sehwag, just a different version that involves more deliveries outside the off-stump left without offering a stroke.
Cook’s batting is uncomplicated and successful because of that. So much depends on Cook if England are to succeed over the seven Tests in Bangladesh and India—they won the first Test against Bangladesh by 22 runs at Chittagong (the Bangladesh series ends on 1 November and the India one starts from 9 November). He has been the only constant at the top of the order since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012. Since then, he has opened the batting with nine players.
With Alex Hales being left out of this tour, there could be a 10th opening partner for Cook when the India series gets under way if 19-year-old Hameed Haseeb makes his debut. Ben Duckett scored 14 and 15 as Cook’s ninth companion at the top of the order in Chittagong, and he is in with a shout of getting the long-term gig.
Walking out to bat with a Test match novice will only increase the pressure on the captain. The importance of Cook’s runs becomes even clearer when you see what comes next.
While Joe Root has continued his ascent to greatness, England’s middle order has had a flabby look to it in recent times. James Vince and Gary Ballance came into the team but neither has succeeded. It looks as if both will be replaced. Even with England’s top order being inexperienced and unsettled, they should emerge victorious from the Bangladesh leg of this trip. When they get to India, they will face a rampant side that demolished New Zealand.
So much of that Indian success has come on the back of the spin bowling of Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. If Cook can further increase his lead over non-Asian batsmen in Asia, England have a chance, but it is a slim one. Cook admitted how big a challenge it would be when speaking to the press on his arrival in Bangladesh after the birth of his second child.
“It is going to be a mountain. But tours like this can kind of go one of two ways. You saw New Zealand start off well recently and then fall away, or you can really unite as a group, as we did in 2012, and you can fly,” he said.
England will be hoping that their captain leads from the front and helps this team take off.
Peter Miller is a freelance cricket writer and podcaster. He is the author of 28 Days Data—England’s Troubled Relationship With One-Day Cricket.