Cook is masterchef

SP
On August 22, 1939, Walter Hammond scored 138 against the West Indies at The Oval, on what was to be his last day of Test cricket for nearly seven years. Hammond would play eight more Test matches after World War II, but add no more centuries to his tally of 22.

No one had scored more hundreds for England.

Seventy three years, three months and 14 days after Hammond's 138, Alastair Cook swept Ravichandran Ashwin for three to go from 98 to 101. As the Eden Gardens crowd rose to their feet, they must have felt the force of history. Cook had become the 23rd player to score 23 Test hundreds, but only the first Englishman.

Colin Cowdrey and Geoffrey Boycott had ended their careers stuck alongside Hammond on 22. Boycott had served a self-imposed three-year exile from Test cricket. Cook's ex-captain and long-term opening partner Andrew Strauss, on 21, could have had a crack at the record, but lost form and hung up his boots before the India tour. A heart attack had forced Ken Barrington to retire with 20 hundreds. Graham Gooch, Cook's mentor and England's current batting coach, also had 20 - he had lost three years of Test cricket to a ban for leading a rebel tour of Apartheid-ruled South Africa.

On the day Hammond made his final Test century, the drawn Test had ended with Len Hutton and Denis Compton unbeaten on 165 and 10. The War ate into their careers as well, and they finished with 19 and 17 hundreds respectively.

Cook, who had now literally swept the curse away, embraced Compton's grandson. In the dressing room, Kevin Pietersen, waiting for his next opportunity to move past 22, rose to applaud. Cook, nearly five years younger than Pietersen, could eventually raise the English century bar to a mark that will probably stand for a couple of generations. But he might have his sights set on even bigger things.

When he slapped Ishant Sharma to the third man fence to go to 92, Cook's tally of Test runs had gone from 6,999 to 7003. At 27 years and 347 days, he was the youngest ever batsman to reach that milestone. Sachin Tendulkar was 28 years and 193 days old when he got there at Bloemfontein in 2001, with his 26th Test hundred. It is within the realms of possibility that Cook could one day go past his record totals for runs and centuries in Test cricket.

Rare Talent

Cook's precocious climb to 7,000 runs is a product of rare talent, of course, but also of the frequency with which England play Test matches these days. It has taken Cook just six years and 279 days to play the 86 Tests he needed to get to 7,000. Sachin Tendulkar had taken only 85 Tests, but they had been spread over 11 years and 353 days. It is instructive that the only other cricketer apart from Cook to get to 7,000 in less than eight years is Pietersen.

All that says, of course, is that Cook is young enough, and that England play Test cricket frequently enough, for him to have a tilt at Tendulkar's twin peaks. Getting there, of course, will require him to score 8591 more runs — only one Englishman, Gooch, has scored that many runs over an entire career — and 28 more hundreds.

Cook, moreover, will need to stay fit and extraordinarily consistent over a long period of time. Assuming that he will need to get to 16,000 runs (Tendulkar currently has 15,638) while scoring at his current runs-per-Test rate, Cook will need to play a further 111 Test matches.

England's last two long-term Test skippers, Strauss and Michael Vaughan, also enjoyed purple patches like the one Cook is currently going through. But their form dipped considerably towards the end of their captaincy tenures. Cook, astoundingly, has five centuries in five Tests as captain. But he too, in due course, will have to contend with age and the stresses of body and mind.

But as long as he continues to bat the way he did on Thursday, the way he has done throughout this tour and throughout the last two years, Test cricket's most cherished records will remain on the horizon, as tiny but visible specks.

(Log on to www.indianexpress.com for exclusive live and outrageously entertaining audio commentary of England's tour of India.) Live on star sports: 9 am

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