Ashes 3rd Test, Day 2: Australia v England
Mitchell Johnson of Australia appeals for a wicket during day two of the Third Ashes Test Match between Australia and England at WACA in Perth, Australia. Photo: Quinn Rooney/GETTY
Alastair Cook was good. Very good. But England needed him to be great.
It was Cook more than any other who delivered England their first away Ashes victory in seven attempts during the team's previous visit to Australia three years ago. His 766 runs at 127.67 was more prolific in a series here than all bar undisputed greats Wally Hammond and Don Bradman.
Lapse: Alastair Cook. Photo: Getty Images
The most striking aspect of his mighty tour performance was not those runs but his extraordinary patience and discipline. Across the five Tests, Cook faced 1438 deliveries, the most by a touring English batsman since Geoffrey Boycott, and was dismissed from only six of them. Had England not been so dominant – all three of their wins were by an innings – he might have set the record for most balls faced in an Ashes series in Australia.
Rather than being renowned for the shots he played on that tour, it was the shots he didn't play that made Cook such a demoralising presence for Australia, because he just refused to let himself stumble. His ability to completely shelve his ego allowed him to prosper, and made him a prime candidate for the captaincy when Andrew Strauss retired midway through last year.
Cook was disciplined to the extent of seeming robotic. What has been more robotic than him in this series, however, is the battery of Australian bowlers attempting – and succeeding – in luring him into mistakes.
The first evidence of that came in the first innings in Brisbane, when Ryan Harris attacked Cook outside off-stump but not wide enough for him to play with a cross bat behind point. His attempt to drive at a ball angled across him, not a shot he is renowned for, cost him his wicket cheaply.
While he was beaten by a fine full Mitch Johnson delivery first up in Adelaide, his departure in the second, hooking Johnson to fine leg, was very out of character, not because he had attempted the shot but that he played it in the second over of an innings.
For an opening batsman to thrive in Australia they must be proficient against fast bowling. The home team's seamers threw everything they had at Cook on Saturday but, excepting a very tough dropped chance by Steve Smith in slips when Cook was on three, the left-hander withstood them just as he had done so often on the last visit.
The worry for Cook is that his two other dismissals in the series, the second of which was midway through the final session on Saturday, came against the spin of Nathan Lyon. On both occasions he fell trying to cut the off-spinner – in Brisbane edging behind, most recently lobbing a catch to David Warner at point.
That Cook had scored 72 runs to that point, and at a superior pace to partner Kevin Pietersen, was of little consolation to England. It was enough to make him the visitors' standout batsman – at least to that point – but with the team needing to overcome Australia's first innings of 385 and a two-nil series deficit, he needed to produce something well beyond three figures. A 72 on a pitch reputed to be ideal for fast bowling was handy, but the Cook of three years ago would not have allowed himself such a lapse just after three and a half hours on the pitch.
On England's last visit here, Cook and Strauss averaged 78.43 for their opening stands. Given Cook and Joe Root managed barely a quarter of that in the winter series, the selectors turned to someone they thought boasted resilience comparable to Cook: veteran Michael Carberry.
In his two-and-a-half Tests since his recall (from a sole appearance in early 2010), Carberry has looked the part in all but the most crucial aspect: his scores.
That England had, until Saturday, averaged only 9.75 for the new first-wicket partnership was less the fault of Carberry as it was of Cook, who had got out twice in three of their four partnerships. In their fifth attempt they were within 16 runs of a century partnership, England's first for 22 innings, when Carberry was bowled off his inside-edge for 43.
While it was Carberry's third 40-plus score of the series he has never scored higher than 63. Cook has never got more than 73. Both players have earned a pass mark, when at least one needs to be an A-plus. Cook seemed the most likely, but he set the bar so high last time that it will be extremely hard to do it again.