Cricket is a sport of wonderful contrasts and during the Melbourne Test, we saw the beauty of this in Alastair Cook and David Warner. Here are two champions performing the same job for their team and yet could not be more different in terms of personality or the way they go about their business. “Finding a way” is a very good coaching phrase in cricket. It denotes the individuality of this team sport. There is not a one-size-fits-all route to success, rather a unique path that each player must take to get the best out of themselves. What works for you is the key. And the two openers I mention, who both put on fine shows at the MCG, are very good examples of this.
Cook’s unbeaten 244 over nearly 11 hours at the crease was a classic of his genre. He was the first to admit an innings like this should have come sooner in this Ashes tour. But as a firm believer in the primacy of each Test match and there being no dead-rubbers, I take issue with anyone that saw the series scoreline as somehow detracting from his efforts here.
Opening the batting against the freshest bowlers and the hardest ball for all but a handful of his 151 caps, delivering in all conditions and sitting as the only opener in the top six all-time run-scorers marks him down as a great of the game. His unquestionable skill comes in his mental fortitude and impeccable fitness. Batting for as long as he can should be extremely draining. And yet he barely breaks sweat.
My first encounter with Cook was on the 2005 Ashes tour when as a 20-year-old Essex kid he belted an attack containing myself, Brett Lee, Michael Kasprowicz and Stuart MacGill for 214 at just under a run-a-ball. From that day through to now, he has always played the ball and never the bowler at the top of his mark.
Sounds obvious? Maybe, but the weaker batsmen don’t always achieve this.
Absorbing pressure doesn’t just come on the field but off it too and it is hard not to respect how Cook has stayed so level during his 11 years as an international cricketer. There were always going to be ups and downs — few players of such longevity cruise through from start to finish — and he has had a few, both in terms of his place at times and the inevitable strains of captaincy for four years.
Now, a lot is made of Warner’s character and it is true that you often don’t know whether you will get the aggressive Bull persona or the peace-loving Reverend. Personally I prefer to see more of the Bull on the cricket field, when ruffling feathers and getting stuck into the opposition. I know he has huge respect for the game and his opponents deep down, even when he pushes hard at the line.
But it was his adaptability that, for me, came to the fore during the fourth Test. His first-innings century transcended the conditions — he had made 103 of the 135 runs scored when he was second man out — while his 83 in the second dig, though ended by a loose shot, was comfortably his slowest half-century and saw him override a natural inclination to just brutalise bowling attacks with a more watchful approach built on a rock solid defence.
Don’t forget, Warner has essentially learnt the first-class game at Test level, with just eight Sheffield Shield matches before his debut in 2011 and only 12 since. And when he first played international cricket in the white-ball formats, he hadn’t turned out in first-class cricket at all. Scratch below the brash exterior and you find a deep-thinking, hard-working cricketer.
Now, Cook may have been fast-tracked from an early age for a Test debut in 2006 but by this stage, he had still played nearly 40 first-class matches. Two different paths. Two different players. Two different characters. And yet both have mastered Test cricket in their own unique way.