Alastair Cook's 95 vs. India: England Captain Hasn't Escaped His Slump Just Yet

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistJuly 27, 2014

England captain Alastair Cook holds up his bat to acknowledge applause from the crowd as he walks off the field of play after losing his wicket off the bowling of Ravindra Jadeja, scoring 95 runs during the first day of the third cricket test match of the series between England and India at The Ageas Bowl in Southampton, England, Sunday, July 27, 2014.  (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

With each and every Test that has passed since late last year, Alastair Cook has slowly descended into his own bunker. Amid a storm—blizzard-like in its severity—engulfing him and his team, seeking refuge has been the overriding instinct.

Hammered by opponents, the press, former allies, fans, social media and cricket's racing winds of change, the England captain's game has operated on nothing but life support for a period spanning almost a year. Stripped back to the bare essentials, Cook's existence has become an exercise in self-preservation.

Outlasting the barrage, surviving the deluge, has become Cook's all-consuming task. 

On Sunday at the Ageas Bowl, however, the beleaguered Englishman briefly emerged from his subterranean existence, grafting 95 defiant runs that were as hard-fought and unattractive as they were fortunate. 

But don't be fooled into thinking this was Cook's triumphant escape from his storm shelter, blazing his way to safety and impending prosperity with his blade above his head and fist thumping his chest, presumptuously celebrating the passing of the wretched squall. 

Instead, this was the England captain lifting the lid of the bunker, slowly raising his head to peek out at the carnage, furtively examining the possible routes to salvation. 

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 27:  Alastair Cook of England smashes the ball towards the boundary during Day 1 of the 3rd Investec Test match between England and India at the Ageas Bowl on July 27, 2014 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Ge
Christopher Lee/Getty Images

They say lasting form slumps become a battle with the mind, an arduous psychological slog against perceived inevitability. 

Yet, watching Cook on Sunday in Southampton was like observing an artist fighting his own hand. Everything was forced. Simple movements looked uneasy. There was no joy in the process, only satisfaction in the outcome.

It was like three little goblins were separately operating Cook's feet, hands and head, each one wanting to do something completely different entirely. 

He edged the first ball of the match, but it fell short of slip. He gifted a chance to Ravindra Jadeja when on 15, but the prickly Indian put it down.

He consistently squirted balls down to third man. He blocked balls onto his foot. He pushed forward with the certainty of a poker player holding a two and a seven. Even when presented with his favourite short-pitched delights, he could only conjure enough of a bottom edge to just get them away. 

But somehow Cook got through it. Revelling in the second life afforded to him, the England captain, like a post-2000 Axl Rose, got the job done, even if the show didn't fit the memories. 

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 27:  Alastair Cook of England during a drinks break during day one of the 3rd Investec Test match between England and India at the Ageas Bowl on July 27, 2014 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Michael Steele/Getty Images

"I was desperate to score runs," said Cook at the conclusion of the day's play, according to the BBC. "I was as fresh as I have ever been and now I have feel I have contributed to the team."

Contribute he did, though this was far from a vintage performance. It took the 29-year-old 230 balls to reach his 95, continuing his laboured rate of scoring that has hampered his game since the beginning of 2012.

Five runs short of an obstinate hundred, Cook edged his 231st delivery to his opposite number, MS Dhoni, behind the stumps.

"Mixed feelings sums it up quite well," added Cook, when asked of his close shave with an elusive century. "If you'd offered me 95 before the game, I would have snapped your hand off, but I'm still frustrated not to get a hundred.

"I wanted to go down fighting and sometimes you do need a bit of luck. I haven't always had that."

Indeed, you can't bemoan the lifeline afforded to Cook by India on Day 1 of this crucial third Test.

In recent months, seemingly every inside edge has thumped into his stumps. Seemingly every nick has been captured by slips cordons, regardless of their difficulty. Seemingly every international bowler, from the ferocious Mitchell Johnson to the vastly unremarkable Dhammika Prasad, has elevated their games when delivering to the England captain. 

Where others have escaped, Cook has fallen. 

That crushing narrative let up for the first time in a long time in Southampton on Sunday. 

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

It was more than 17 years ago when Mark Taylor, enduring a ghastly run of form with the bat as Australian skipper (he hadn't passed 43 in 21 Test innings) doggedly fought his way to 129 at Edgbaston in 1997, facing 296 balls with a defiance similar to that shown by Cook at the Ageas Bowl.

Lauded for his tenacity in the face of despair, Taylor's hundred was supposed to represent a turning point for the under-siege leader.

He followed that performance with scores of one, two, one and zero, retiring for good only 18 months later with a pair of twos at his home ground in Sydney. 

Once it set in, Taylor never truly escaped the storm. 

And despite his 95 on Sunday, Cook hasn't done so yet, either.