- India v England, 3rd Test, Kolkata 3rd day
Cook bats his way into list of England greats
This was the day that Alastair Cook cemented his place among the greats of the game.
Statistics never tell the whole story, but they do bear repeating: Alastair Cook is now the youngest man to reach 7000 Tests runs in the history of the game; he has scored more Test centuries than any other England player; and, having become the first man to score centuries in each of his first four Tests as captain only a week or so ago, he has now extended that sequence to five. And he does not seem to have expended a drop of sweat in the process.
The tale beyond the statistics is, arguably, more impressive. Cook has produced his three centuries this series, surely the best batting of his career, when his team most required it. Coming into this series, England looked fallible against spin and had been beset by internal unrest. But, by demonstrating that a calm head and occupation of the crease were the best methods of survival during the rout at Ahmedabad, he has instilled a belief into his side that had looked absent a few weeks ago. He is not just on the threshold of greatness. He is sitting with his feet up in its dining room demanding another cup of coffee.
He keeps improving, too. When he first came into the England side, he was regarded, despite a century on debut in Nagpur, as an unconvincing player of spin bowling. He spent many hours working on his game, however, not least against the Merlin spin-bowling machine, and gradually developed a method that worked for him.
His sweeping, once more of a nurdle, now has power and command. His driving, once reserved for the longest of half-volleys and the flattest of pitches, continues to increase in scope and grace and his footwork, once hesitant, now has purpose and confidence. The languid drive through extra-cover off Zaheer Khan and the straight six he skipped down the pitch and drove off Ravi Ashwin, would have pleased David Gower.
He has lost none of his original qualities either: he still has the concentration of a security camera; he still leaves the ball well; he still cuts, pulls and works of his legs efficiently. But he has become, not just obdurate, but challenging for any fielding side to control. He has become a great batsman.
Some will baulk at that description. They will point out, with some justification, that Cook's feat of reaching 7000 Test runs before his 28th birthday is as much a reflection of the modern fixture schedule as his talent. It is true that while it took Wally Hammond 18 years and 236 days to play the 131 innings he required for the milestone, it took Cook just six years and 279 days.
It is true, too, that Cook does not dominate like Viv Richards, he rarely times the ball like Rahul Dravid and he scarcely plays shots that make a crowd purr with delight like Brian Lara. He does not feel like a great player.
But perhaps feeling should have little to do with it. While batsmen are often judged on aesthetics, to do so disregards many other skills; skills such as resilience, concentration and, most importantly of all, run scoring. Based on those, perhaps more prosaic criteria, Cook has a strong case to be considered a great batsman. His is a classic case of substance prevailing over style.
Cook's success must also be attributed, in part at least, to England's selectors. Not so long ago, a player enduring the form Cook had in 2010 would have been dropped and, perhaps, never found their way back into the side. He had, after all, failed to pass 30 in eight successive innings and, just as importantly, looked all at sea outside off stump.
But the selectors persevered with him. They trusted in his character and in his work ethic. They trusted him to find a way to work out his problems. He rewarded their patience with a dogged century against Pakistan at The Oval and, since then, has scored 11 centuries in 28 Tests at an average of 68.53. He amassed 766 runs in the Ashes series of 2010-11 - among England batsmen, only Wally Hammond (with 905 in 1928-29) has managed more - and he has now become the first man to score a century in each of his first five Tests as captain. Aged 27, the best should still be ahead of him.
More importantly, he has presented his team with a once-in-a-generation opportunity: the chance to beat India in India. No-one has done that since 2004 and England have not done it since 1984-85. By dismissing India for an under-par total, England gave themselves the opportunity to use the wicket before its anticipated deterioration. And, by taking that opportunity, they will aim to bat just once in this game. There is a long way to go, but the tide in the series has turned and is currently flowing strongly in England's direction.
Perhaps the key difference between these sides, however, is fitness. While England have been able to call on their top players to produce extra efforts when required - the bowling of James Anderson and Monty Panesar on the first day and the batting of Cook, in particular, on the second - India effectively have to nurse half their team through the day.
India's fielding veered between the ambivalent to the awful. It was not just that they dropped a crucial catch - Cook put down on 17 when Pujara, usually at short-leg, suddenly found himself at slip while Sehwag, the regular slip, found himself at cover - but that England were able to drop and run the ball with an ease that, at times, embarrassed some of the biggest names in Indian cricket.
Shown up for their age and their lack of athleticism, sharp singles became comfortable; long twos were turned into threes and overthrows were donated as the basic disciplines, such as backing up, deserted India. Nor was this an aberration. It was the norm. It wrecked any chance the bowlers had of building pressure and allowed a soft release for the batsmen.
This difference did not just show in the fielding. With the match to be shaped after lunch and Zaheer Khan producing an excellent spell that troubled both batsmen, India could have fought their way back into the game. Instead, Dhoni was obliged to rest Zaheer after just three overs and the opportunity slipped away.
A sports psychologist who has worked with players from both teams suggested there may be a cultural issue at play. In England, he reasoned, the emphasis is invariably on work ethic; in India there is a greater onus on rest. Perhaps both teams could learn from aspects of each other's approach, but India surely need to work harder on their fielding.
This is why defeat in this series might not prove to be such a disaster for India. While a side continues to make excuses for setbacks - injuries, unfamiliar conditions, doctored pitches et al. - they are failing to confront the real issues. Being forced into a period of reflection might do no harm.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo