Alastair Cook: Great, but not the greatest


With Alastair Cook retiring from international cricket he’s been taking a lot of plaudits and when you look at his stats, even though he’s been in terrible nick for up to two years, you can see why.

He tops the England ‘Most Runs Scored’ table by a huge margin, ahead of many, many legends of the game. And there’s not much arguing against that when making a case for him as one of England’s greatest ever batsmen. Cook is also sixth on the all-time list of Test run-scorers and has made a record 11,627 runs as an opener – more than 2000 clear of second-placed Sunil Gavaskar.

Nasser Hussain is convinced, calling Cook “England’s greatest batsman”.

“He is mentally the toughest cricketer I have ever seen,” says Nasser. “He has been a truly remarkable cricketer.”

And yet although assigning ‘greatest’ based on runs scored is an easy and in some ways logical thing to do, I don’t believe it really tells us the whole story. If we’re looking for who really is the greatest there are many other factors we need to make a call on.

As recently as two weeks ago Geoff Boycott was asking “For sometime now Alastair Cook has been getting out for too many low scores. He needs to ask himself a question: Am I coming to the end?” And as it turned out, Cook had indeed asked himself that question and answered in the affirmative.

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There’s no doubt Cook’s 44.88 average would have been much better if he’d retired a couple of years ago. It stood at 47.31 after the 2016 summer, and still 46.45 when he quit the captaincy. But his 12,254 runs, 3354 ahead of his mentor Graham Gooch, will take some beating. It is a huge total.

So where does Cook really stand in the English batting pantheon? Is he really, as Nasser says, England’s greatest? What does ‘greatest’ really mean? After all, Herbert Sutcliffe had an average of 60.73, Ken Barrington 58.67 and Wally Hammond 58.45. Yes they all played a lot fewer innings for England – Sutcliffe just 84 – but does that make them inferior to Cook and his 298 knocks? Surely not. You can only judge a player on their form when they play.

After all, as impressive at the 12,254 is, he did play 74 more innings than Gooch, for example, 108 more than the fifth on the list of run scorers Kevin Pietersen, who knocked out 8181 and had a superior average of 47.28. So we do need to take that into account when we use the word ‘greatest.’ The one who plays the most and bats first is likely to have the best chance to top the runs scored lists. After all, you’ve got the longest potential time to rack up runs. But then, you’ve still got to do it.

All of which really muddies the waters when it comes to assessing where Cook’s place in history rightfully lies.

Obviously his numbers are important but we also need to look at how he played the game. Indeed, many might feel that is the most important thing. This was an argument that was used for and against Geoff Boycott back in the day. He was the fifth-highest accumulator of first-class centuries in history, the first cricketer to score his one hundredth  in a Test match but also once took seven hours and 22 minutes to score 77!  Some loved Boycs, others thought he was selfish and batted only for himself. He’s still sixth in the run scorers league and had a better average than Cook at 47.72.

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David Gower is fourth on the runs scored list but many would vote him England’s best ever batsman simply for the elegant way he played the game. There was nothing like seeing Gower in full flow, as smooth as butter, with an offside drive like liquid gold.

Gooch was an absolute powerhouse and monstrous belter of the ball – though when I saw him get a pair in his debut Test you’d never have thought that – and had a top score of 333 compared to Cook’s 294, then again Len Hutton high- scored with 364 and an average of 56.67. Are all just great or is one the greatest?

Crucial to how we rate any of these players is the strength of the teams they faced, because obviously it’s easier to rack up runs against poor sides. That’s very difficult to assess, though. Is the 191 Boycott scored against Australia in 1977 a greater achievement than Cook’s 119 against the all-conquering Aussies in 2006? There are dozens of such comparisons that could be made and at the end of them all, you can’t really call one over the other. Different eras required different skills and approaches.

To me, Cook simply isn’t the greatest ever English batsman by virtue of the fact that there can be no single one greatest English batsman and to elevate one as superior to any other that has ever pulled on the pads for his country seems over generous to Cook and overly disparaging to many others.

So when it comes to Cook, let’s settle for great, but not greatest.

John Nicholson