When Alistair Cook walked to the crease at the start of England’s innings, the first test of England’s tour against Pakistan was in danger of listing. Actually, ‘danger of listing’ is making it sound more ex- citing than it was. The test wasn’t in danger of listing, it had completely and irrefutably sunk on a wicket which managed simultaneously to be both boring to bowl on as it was awkward to bat on.
528 balls, 836 minutes and 263 runs later, Cook walked off. In a single innings Cook had, on the face of it, not done a huge amount different. His score was only slightly larger than his Pakistani counterpart Shoaib Ma- lik’s 245, and he has been making large totals in Asia for his entire career now (he overtook South African Jacques Kallis as leading non- Asian run scorer in Asia). The innings was neither the longest in history, nor the high- est scoring. It was not particularly explosive, with only 14 fours and no sixes. In an age of T20 and the Indian Premier League, a game which lasts five days and can end in a draw seems increasingly outdated. Surrounded by glistening skyscrapers and half-finished apartment complexes, Cook’s lonely 13 and a bit hours in the blazing sun felt increasingly detached from the real world, an outdated specimen of a bygone age. The last true Test cricketer, in his natural habitat, quietly and carefully hooking and sweeping and leaving the battered red ball as the world moves on without him.
This feels a long way from the 2005 Ashes series against Australia, the most recent time the Test match could potentially claim to have a grip on the nation’s conscience. An estimated 22.65 million people watched at least 30 minutes of Test cricket that summer. So what has changed? At the close of the series, as Michael Vaughan and co. careered and drank their way through an open topped bus tour of London, the seeds of Test cricket’s decline were sown with the purchase of tele- vision rights by Sky from Channel 4. Cricket had, in one sweep, become the preserve of those who could afford to pay or had a prior interest in the sport. A sport which was already uncomfortable with the rise of football as the nation’s preeminent pastime had isolated itself even further.
This brings us, ten years later, to this sunbaked 22 yards of turf halfway around the world. The years had not been kind to the England team. Isolated victories and a fleeting world number one ranking did little to mask the decline. Harried and harassed by the group of new, brash associate na- tions, England has crashed out before the final in successive short-form World Cups. Cook became the poster boy, particularly in light of the ongoing Kevin Pietersen saga, of a reactionary way to approach cricket, the archetypal ‘yes’ man nodding and agreeing with an insular establishment.
That is why I watched his innings with increasing fascination. Nothing he did, par- ticularly, was new. The record he broke for the longest innings by an Englishman had been around since 1938. But in this innings lay the recurrent fascination of Test cricket. It should not have been watchable. We should not have cared. But through sheer determina- tion and skill he stuck it out. Hour after hour, ball after ball. Hook, sweep, leave. Unruffled, unstressed, man and bat working together again and again. A contest which had no right to become one emerged through sheer force of will. The last true Test cricketer, reminding us of the beauty of the sport