Cricket: England v South Africa

Performance of The Day: Alastair Cook

The England opener has rarely played a more perfect innings and did so with the pressure on in the first Test of a key series

Performance of The Day: Alastair Cook

Alastair Cook has played nothing but one-day cricket for the past few weeks, and he has excelled, scoring at a run a ball and dominating the bowling.

In making a near flawless hundred (114*) at The Oval, Cook was able to switch with ease back to his more pragmatic Test-match mode. Not all players can perform this volte-face so readily, but Cook is such a clear-headed cricketer that he is in control at all times.

After Strauss’s dismissal in the first over, South Africa had hopes of making further inroads. But that was before Trott and Cook came together in a stand of 170 that put England in the dominant position of 267-3. With the pitch showing early signs of breaking up, Graeme Swann will be flexing his fingers with evil intent. Even on day three he can count on plentiful turn.

Trott and Cook have a remarkable record together in Test matches. Their average stand of 76 is bettered for England only by the legendary pairing of Herbert Sutcliffe and Jack Hobbs.

The two most unflappable batsmen in Test cricket built their stand with an almost monotonous professionalism that gradually dampened South Africa’s fires. Trott gives the impression of being the most relaxed man on the pitch. Once he was out for 71, he could be seen reading a magazine on the balcony lost in his own world.

Cook’s innings, however, contained some memorable strokeplay. He left ball after ball outside off stump as South Africa tried to test his patience, a game they were bound to lose. But when the ball was there to be hit, he put it away in emphatic style.

Kallis, Steyn and the Morkel were all square cut to the fence when they dropped short. And legspinner Imran Tahir gifted Cook a long hop with he smote for a boundary to move to his fifty.

There was one period of quietude in the afternoon when Cook went 79 balls without scoring a boundary, an indication of his phlegmatic temperament and maturity as a Test batsman. He scored 20 in that period almost all in singles.

Cook also possesses the inner belief that when the bad ball arrives he can put it away. In time, he emerged from his cocoon with a sumptuous on-drive for four off Philander. A short time later, Steyn was driven off his pads to the mid-wicket fence, another stylish blow.

When his 20th Test hundred came, as it inevitably did, Cook raised his arms aloft knowing that he can rarely have played a more perfect innings. There were a couple of play and misses against Steyn and Morkel, but South Africa’s vaunted attack barely troubled him.

Steyn, the world’s number one bowler, tried a round-the-wicket angle from wide of the crease to Cook. But this played to his strengths. He was able to move across his stumps and work the ball to leg, knowing that lbw was taken out of the equation. When Steyn dropped short, Cook hooked him off a top edge for six.

Trott’s innings was equally impassive, though slightly more flawed. He played and missed a few times, mainly against Philander who moved the ball around off the seam. In the end, Morkel got him with one outside off stump which he drove at and edged. He was always likely to fall that way and his luck ran out.

But generally South Africa could have done more to disrupt the rhythm of these two players who love to bat in a bubble. Steyn’s pace was down in the mid-eighties, a yard or two slower than usual, until he found his rhythm in a fine spell with the second new ball.

Whatever the reason, there were very few short balls from Steyn or Morkel. On such a slow pitch they may have had limited effect, but they might have served to instil doubt into the batsmen’s minds and hesitancy into their footwork.

Legspinner Imran Tahir was ordinary. He lobbed the ball rather than bowling it with a rip, and dropped short far too often. He appeared nervous and subdued, lacking the vivacity required of this art.
South Africa’s fielding was also at times a little below par, and stand-in wicketkeeper A B de Villiers made a few mistakes including letting four leg byes through his gloves.

But South Africa are coming off a long lay off from Test cricket. The most competitive cricket most of them have played of late has been in the IPL. They will get better, but it may already be too late to catch England in this game.