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Ashes fourth Test: Alastair Cook finds their touch

Alastair Cook may have broken almost every record in England’s batting book but he had never gone 11 Test innings without even a half century before.

That is why the return to form of Cook with a quite magnificent unbeaten hundred here at the MCG was the most significant factor of a day that became a glorious one for England in what has been a sorry series.

It has been the miserable displays of England’s key players that has been the biggest reason why the Ashes were again lost in Australia after three Tests but this was the day that Joe Root’s senior lieutenants bit back.  

Alastair Cook celebrates as he reaches his century on the second day of the fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, Australia

Cook leaves the field at the Melbourne Cricket Ground at the end of a good day for England in the fourth Ashes Test

Cook leaves the field at the Melbourne Cricket Ground at the end of a good day for England in the fourth Ashes Test

After a disappointing series with the bat, the former England captain found his very best form against Australia's attack

After a disappointing series with the bat, the former England captain found his very best form against Australia’s attack

Cook drives the ball towards the boundary on his way to making 104 not out as England put pressure on their Ashes hosts

Cook drives the ball towards the boundary on his way to making 104 not out as England put pressure on their Ashes hosts

Australia captain Steve Smith sees the ball slip from his hands  when he dropped centurion Cook while he was on 66 

Australia captain Steve Smith sees the ball slip from his hands  when he dropped centurion Cook while he was on 66 

England captain Joe Root (49*) steadied the ship after Mark Stoneman (15) and James Vince (17) failed to get going

England captain Joe Root (49*) steadied the ship after Mark Stoneman (15) and James Vince (17) failed to get going

First there was Stuart Broad, so bad in Perth that even his former England captain Michael Vaughan was calling for his head, showing why it really would be foolish to write him off just yet with his best figures of the year.

Then, after England had enjoyed the welcome sight of Australia collapsing rather than them to lose their last seven wickets for 67, came one of the more important half centuries that even Cook had ever made.

It was not quite up there with the famous opening to the Boxing Day Test here seven years ago when Australia were bowled out for 98 but England’s dominance of this second day was still a welcome sight for sore English eyes.

The day started with Australia’s immovable object in Steve Smith at the crease on a ground where he had not been dismissed in over three years while amassing an extraordinary average of 137.

While the Australia captain was there this fourth Test looked like following a very familiar script but Smith’s hopes of leading his team to the score of 500 plus that looked assured after the first morning were quickly dashed.

Tom Curran saw his first Test wicket disappear on the first day when he overstepped after having David Warner caught on 99 but now he claimed the one bigger scalp in the Australia side when Smith dragged on a wide one.

Tom Curran of England runs down the MCG pitch and celebrates his first wicket in Test match cricket during the second day

Tom Curran of England runs down the MCG pitch and celebrates his first wicket in Test match cricket during the second day

Curran claimed the scalp of Australia's captain Smith as England kept Australia to just 327 after being 122 without loss

Curran claimed the scalp of Australia’s captain Smith as England kept Australia to just 327 after being 122 without loss

Stuart Broad finished with his best figures of 2017 of four wickets for 51 runs as England cleared up Australia's tail end

Stuart Broad finished with his best figures of 2017 of four wickets for 51 runs as England cleared up Australia’s tail end

England walk off the field after limiting Australia's total to 327 with Broad (left) claiming four wickets for just 51 runs

England walk off the field after limiting Australia’s total to 327 with Broad (left) claiming four wickets for just 51 runs

The door was slightly ajar and England barged through in the form of England’s big two in Broad and Jimmy Anderson, who showed the skills on a slow, flat drop-in wicket that have brought them more than 900 Test wickets.

Between them Broad and Anderson, gaining just enough reverse swing, took five of those seven wickets that quickly disappeared once Australia had lost the biggest difference between the sides in this one-sided series in Smith.

England had enjoyed an excellent session but their problem here has been backing it up and they desperately needed Cook to set the tone that has proved so elusive ever since his double hundred against West Indies last summer.

Cook, who turned 33 on Christmas Day, has seen his continuing hunger for the battle questioned here even though he has been spending more time in the nets and with his favourite batting coach in Gary Palmer than ever before.

Those questions about whether he still had the passion and desire for the heat of the battle would have grown louder had Cook gone throughout the whole of a beaten Ashes series without a single meaningful contribution. 

But he has always been tougher than he looks and now there was a purpose about Cook and a certainty about his footwork from the start against an Australian attack that had most of its venom drawn by the MCG surface.

Mitchell Starc was missing with a heel injury and Pat Cummins was struggling to stay on the field through illness which made life considerably easier for an England team who had been battered into submission in Perth.

It seemed the whole of Australia had taken offence at Anderson’s pre-Test comments about the lack of depth in Australia’s fast bowling reserves but they were proven spot on by the performance of Starc’s replacement in Jackson Bird. 

Australia bowler Nathan Lyon caught and bowled England's opening batsman Mark Stoneman for 15 with a diving catch

Australia bowler Nathan Lyon caught and bowled England’s opening batsman Mark Stoneman for 15 with a diving catch

James Vince takes a heavy hit to the body as he attempts to hit a fast ball towards the Australian boundary

James Vince takes a heavy hit to the body as he attempts to hit a fast ball towards the Australian boundary

Josh Hazlewood is congratulated by his team-mates after claiming the wicket of England's Vince to set a familiar tone

Josh Hazlewood is congratulated by his team-mates after claiming the wicket of England’s Vince to set a familiar tone

Cook drives the ball towards the boundary as he steadied a rocking ship and moved towards his first half century for 10 Tests

Cook drives the ball towards the boundary as he steadied a rocking ship and moved towards his first half century for 10 Tests

Bird, it turned out, was slower than every ‘fast’ bowler on either side bar Curran which left the remaining key components in Australia’s attack in Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon to carry the bulk of the load.

It was Lyon who dismissed Mark Stoneman with another outstanding catch off his own bowling and it was Hazlewood who claimed the second English wicket with the help of both his victim in James Vince and the umpire in S Ravi.

Vince looked out to the naked eye when Hazlewood thudded one into his pads and was happy to walk off once Ravi had raised his finger and his partner Cook had asked him whether he had hit it while they considered a review.

Trouble was, HotSpot revealed Vince had got a thin inside edge onto pad which he clearly didn’t hear himself so he paid for his unselfishness – or perhaps it was a lack of the self-preservation instinct the best players have – and again failed to deliver the big score his classy shots suggest he should be making.

If only Vince had anything like the character of Cook who, like Broad, sums up the adage of form being temporary but class permanent. Only when Smith dropped him off Mitchell Marsh when he had made 66 was Cook ever in trouble.

Joining him in an unbroken stand of 112 as they closed on 192 for two, just 135 behind, was his successor as captain in Root who was described by Ricky Ponting as a ‘little boy lost’ before this Test and who desperately needed runs himself in this most difficult of all series.

Cook was helped to his 32nd Test hundred by Smith bowling himself for the last over of the day and he will resume on 104 and Root on 49 with England really having a chance to put themselves in a position to win a Test here in Australia with a decent first innings lead. This time they cannot let it go to waste. 

Cook runs between the creases as his successor Root runs past him as they formed a stubborn third-wicket partnership

Cook runs between the creases as his successor Root runs past him as they formed a stubborn third-wicket partnership

Cook survived a catching chance as captain Smith dropped the ball with England's batsman on just 66

Cook survived a catching chance as captain Smith dropped the ball with England’s batsman on just 66

Cook looks to the sky and clenches his fist after reaching his first century of the current Ashes series in the day's final over

Cook looks to the sky and clenches his fist after reaching his first century of the current Ashes series in the day’s final over



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