November 19, 2018
Europe

How Alastair Cook battled through with the ugliest Ashes ton

Related Story: Cook's long-awaited century puts England in charge at the MCGRelated Story: The answer to cricket's no-ball problem will appear on your screen shortly

Oh man, it was ugly. It was Sylvester Stallone gene-spliced with a French bulldog named Puffin. It was your aunt's collection of porcelain shepherds congealing in the bottom of the Christmas trifle after three days left out in the December heat.

If anything, Alastair Cook and the Melbourne Cricket Ground pitch made a perfect couple. Slow. Torrid. Unfashionable. Attritional. Yet each made undeniable by its long legacy to the game.

It's not just the way Cook has been falling over to the off-side. It's not the hanging back to half-volleys, nor prodding like a man who isn't sure if eyes or nerve will fail him first.

When you look bad in cricket, you look really bad. No matter your age or fallibility. Many a 20-year-old prodigy can look utterly done while trudging through the deepest trough.

But Cook has looked exhausted. The man who celebrated his 150th Test match at Perth has looked like he'd played the lot of them across consecutive days.

There has been a slump to his shoulders, a drag to his feet. A slow pace trudging from spot to spot in the field. A lack of alertness at slip.

Channel those nights when you're 17, and have no money for a cab, and the mate you're supposed to stay with disappears.

The first train isn't until 8am, so you walk by the tracks for three hours, four, whatever it takes, and as the sunrise comes around you find yourself still trudging, legs sludging together, sloughing forward by accident more than intent, an approximation of movement.

The kind of weariness that fills bones, spills over into limbs, douses every fibre of muscle. Goes beyond your body, forms a mattress that calls you to lie down in the weeds, among the rocks, unheeding of the detritus that may litter your way.

External Link: Fourth Ashes Test, Australia v England Manhattan

A long, long sleep that draws you down, like water the shipwrecked. Lie down with us here at the bottom of everything, and do no more than sway, only a little, to the rhythm of the current.

Alastair Cook is that tired. Note the moment in Perth when he slouched through the middle of BT Sport's television set at the end of a day, trailing his kit bag.

And you shall know us by the trail of feet, the draggers who brought about the front-foot no-ball in 1963.

That was the man who came to the crease after Australia was dismissed on the second day of the Melbourne Test. A score of 327 looked sub-par, but England's batting was more than capable of making it colossal.

Nathan Lyon was on early, Cook's recent nemesis. The batsman lunged forward hard, got in the biggest possible stride, and dropped off strike when he could locate half a gap. Chopping square when the length permitted.

It looked fraught. But in a way, Cook has seen all this already.

He may be Lyon's most frequent victim, but Lyon is far from Cook's most frequent vanquisher. Morne Morkel, Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Ishant Sharma have all knocked over the Englishman more times than Australia's most prolific off-spinner.

England's Alastair Cook hooks the ball at the MCG on day two of the fourth Ashes Test.

So Cook battled on, with the look of a man battling a stomach ailment. Ginger, grimacing, jabbing with gloves well in advance of his body. Walking like a lava lamp.

There were a few nice shots. The flick behind square especially, his first boundary as Josh Hazlewood strayed onto the thigh pad. The sweeper at long leg was only 10 paces square, but the ball cruised into the rope.

But still, the praise felt like applauding your eight-year-old nephew for getting some scales right on his recorder. And when I say right, I mean slightly less than horrific.

Like any work of art, different perspectives offer wildly different perceptions. Other reports spoke of Cook growing in confidence, of "looking ominous", even of being imperious.

None of that for mine, for an innings more scratchy than a cartoon cat. But that was what made it so creditable. So admirable. Cook has rarely batted worse in his life, but he refused to let that defeat him.

The fifty came up: as Simon Mann had it on ABC Grandstand:

"A moment of minor triumph. He's made a half-century in this series. He's struggled for runs, averaging 14 so far. But he has confirmed England's fightback today."

And continued it, ugly as ever. The most hideous drive down the ground, reaching away from the body to jab the ball with an angled bat, somehow going straighter than it had any right to.

A ball into the pads was nearly reviewed. Another jammed into the ground behind point, the Chop King at it again.

On to 66, then Steve Smith dropped a catch off Mitchell Marsh. No appreciable movement — if anything, a ball that did him for lack of pace. Two boundaries and two near dismissals in two overs.

But Cook couldn't be moved. By this stage, Jackson Bird had resorted to bowling as wide as possible around the wicket, impersonating Mitchell Starc without replacing him. It didn't work, only hitting the pads while angling down leg.

Cook identified the moment of threat, or was paralysed by it. He stalled for 20 minutes, backed away to carve Lyon through cover, then stopped again. The best part of an hour passed for seven runs to his score.

External Link: No Cook on Ashes top scorers

Hazlewood beat the edge, Paine appealed but the bowler didn't stir.

And yet when width came from Australia's senior paceman, the opponent laced it, his favoured cut shot for four.

That hour's trawl at the bottom of a dumpster had yielded a shiny coin.

Cook was walking across his stumps now like Smith. Patrick Cummins had an arm raised in half celebration as he speared at the pads, but the batsman smothered the ball keeping low for two runs.

With a fraction of width, through cover, not a drive but an awkward punch. Two more. Then the angled bat to drive straight again, twisting in his hands, Warner's dive at long-off not enough to flick it back.

Earlier in the day, it looked like a matter of how soon Smith would run down Cook's record of 31 Test centuries. By the end, it was Cook with the chance to extend it to 32. Aesthetics meant nothing.

And for a century that was an extended series of trash, bravely stitched together by a competitor who didn't know how to let it defeat him, what better way to raise it than against that man, Smith.

Australia's captain is a purveyor of leg-breaks covering the range from sublime to ridiculous. The prime driver behind Misbah-ul-Haq scoring the then-fastest Test century in 2014.

The last over of the day fell to his part-time wrist work. Cook was on 93. Nerves could be presumed to be a factor.

It was worth a shot. And then it wasn't. A high loopy toss on leg stump, and England's veteran had the poise to drive it calmly through the field at mid-on.

A dot ball. A shorter one squirted square for two. On 99 with three balls left. Then an absolute pie, a leg-side short ball that sat up and waited for treatment.

Pulled away behind square, with a fitting lack of elegance; instead a flurry of trousers and a creaking of vertebrae as Cook contorted himself into some sort of position to deal with it.

The man who had spent an hour over seven runs had nabbed 11 in four balls.

England's Alastair Cook walks off at stumps after making 100 against Australia on day two at MCG.

A century at every major Australian venue, and no other had been battled out so hard against the winds of form and fortune.

So here is Cook at the moment of triumph. He wipes his brow. He looks so tired. There are two balls left in the day.

He jabs to cover, wants to run instinctively, turns back. Pulls the last ball, squarer to the sweeper, adds one more run. Survives the day, and gets to lead his captain off the field.

There's that weariness again. In the stance, the demeanour. No wonder: Perth and Brisbane have been kind, but here it's a scorcher. Melbourne will still be 31 degrees at 1 o'clock the following morning.

He strips the right glove first, bat under his arm. Warner is the first to shake Cook's hand. Cook finally gets the helmet off. Turns and salutes to the southern end, where the travelling supporters have endured the sun.

Joe Root trails metres behind, maybe 15. He is letting his veteran player take the lead, everyone else fading into the background. The cameras will get a clear shot, Root's 49 not out will go unremembered.

And there goes Cook, over the boundary rope. Bat raised, but lackadaisical. A flip of the blade rather than a brandish. That weary trudge, the hair slicked in his eyes. He does sweat, after all. And what a knock. In all its badness, and the good that results.

Yes, it was ugly. It was the interior decoration of a 1970s toilet. It was Federation Square taking a selfie in the Scream mask and running the photos through Google's Deep Dream.

But like one of the aforementioned bulldogs, you had to love it for its occasional pretty moments, and for its tenacity.

And like the bulldog, it huffed and wheezed and struggled to clamber onto the couch, but it lived. Against all odds, it survived in an unaccommodating world. At least for one more day.

External Link: Fourth Ashes Test, Australia v England scoreboard

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