BREAKING THE 23RD CENTURY BARRIER

~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, December 6th 2012

Alastair CookIn the world of cricket, Test matches always have a capital T, and they fully earn it. They are the sporting duels that last as long as a working week. If you happen to be an opening batsman captaining your country on an overseas tour, each Test is a test of your whole being: of brain, brawn, guts, reflexes, sangfroid, concentration, confidence and diplomacy. Every hour that your team are out in the field, you have to be a general, shaping the strategy. Then, just when you need to put your feet up, you get ten minutes to put your armour on and take your place in the poor bloody infantry.

Alastair Cook, the Bedford choirboy who has just taken over as captain of England, is passing all these tests at the moment. In five Tests as captain, all in the heat and dust of South Asia, he has scored five centuries. Nobody from any country has done that before. There is a poster—designed in the war, but never used at the time—that has become strangely ubiquitous in the only mildly embattled Britain of the 21st century. It says "Keep calm and carry on". That’s exactly what Cook does.

Cook is 27, the age at which his predecessor, Andrew Strauss, played his first Test. And yet today he set a new record for the most Test hundreds by an Englishman: 23 of them. Partly this reflects the fact that more Tests are staged these days—Cook has played 86 already—and it is a batsmen’s era, but there’s more to it than that. The volume of Tests went up sharply in the 1980s, and superstars such as Ricky Ponting of Australia (just retired) and Sachin Tendulkar of India (just clinging on) duly steamed past records that had long belonged to the greatest run machine of all, Don Bradman of Australia. Bradman hit 29 Test hundreds; ten men have now passed that, with Tendulkar out in front on a once-unthinkable 51. But somehow the invitation to the party never reached England’s batsmen.

Historically, if you could rely on an English cricketer for one thing, it was longevity. They kept calm and carried on and on. The first man ever to reach 22 Test centuries was English. It was Wally Hammond, captain of England, and he did it at a poignant moment, against West Indies at the Oval in August 1939. Two weeks later Britain was at war. The bats fell silent for six years. Hammond, one of the greatest batsman of all time, played on afterwards, but he was old for a sportsman—42 when the war ended—and he didn’t make another hundred.

England carried on producing fine batsmen: Len Hutton and Denis Compton took up the baton from Hammond, then came Colin Cowdrey and Peter May and Ken Barrington and Geoff Boycott. Of the first eight men to reach 20 Test hundreds, four were English. But none of them could get more than 22; Cowdrey stalled there, and so did Boycott. Later batsmen, no less gifted, didn’t get quite so far. David Gower was too laid-back, Graham Gooch got going too late, Mike Atherton was made captain too young.

And so the mystery of the 23rd hundred continued. In August Andrew Strauss retired, worn out by the double burden of opening the batting and running the show; he had 21 hundreds. Kevin Pietersen did too, but he was out of the team, ostracised for texting the opposition. Cook was on 20. Becoming captain either raises a player’s game or inhibits it. Cook, of course, kept calm and carried on, even though he has made a habit of losing the toss and having to bat with his head aching from being out in the field.

Last month, in Mumbai, he and Pietersen both reached 22 hundreds on the same day, batting together, as Cook reaped the rewards of being flexible enough to put up with the prodigal son.

Now, at last, the 23rd hundred has come, after no more than a 73-year wait. If you’re an England fan, congenitally attuned to disappointment, now daring to dream of a Test series win in India, your cup runneth over. As it says in the 23rd Psalm.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life and a former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack