07 January 2016

The Alistair Cook formula for form-recovery

[This was published in the 'Daily News' on January 7, 2011.  I am re-posting this thinking of all great crickets who go through a slump.]

 As I write, England are poised not just to retain the Ashes but to do so emphatically (by English and not Australian or West Indian standards of cricketing demolition).  This was a series that England was supposed to win.  Australia, after all, is not just in the process of team building but hampered by a serious form slump among its most experienced campaigners.  Still, no one predicted the stand-out performance of Alistair Cook.  It didn’t make a difference. It made a huge difference. 

Carrying with him a depressing Ashes career average of 26.21 in ten Tests, the English opener has amassed (without counting a possible final at-crease) a staggering 766 aggregate at a startling average of 110.75.  The only other player to have scored more runs in an Ashes series is Wally Hammond and that was 82 years ago.  A lot of batting records have been smashed by Cook over the past 2 months, needless to say, all the more creditable considering that doubts were raised about his Test berth after making just 5 and 9 in the first warm-up match.  

I am sure sports and especially cricket journalists would have a lot to write about records, history, technique and temperament.  I was intrigued by a comment that the record-breaker made: "Form comes and goes, and I couldn't hit the middle of the bat six months ago. But that's the secret of sport, isn't it, why form comes and goes as much as it can do, I don't know. But you keep working hard and enjoy it when you do do well, because there were some pretty dark times last summer and I'm sure there will be in my career at some other time." 

Talent is important in all things. Skills can be acquired.  You need a certain minimum of both to get by.  From there to ‘Test level’ (in anything, cricket included) requires sacrifice, dedication, love for what you do, humility, passion and practice, practice, practice.  There are countless talented players whose Test averages are in the 30s or even less. Cook’s Test average is 46.17 which is less than ten runs per outing than the productivity of a Sangakkara or a Sehwag.  Perhaps these other two belong to a different ‘class’ in technique and talent in addition to the same kind of discipline and will to perfect that Cook is endowed with.  All of them have the right to talk about form and form-loss, something that the flashy but erratic don’t. 

Cook is right.  Form is the ultimate secret of sport, until such time that age makes such discussions meaningless and outside of course of the form-tweaking mechanisms called match-fixing and spot-fixing.  Outside of these caveats what makes form-loss temporary is the hard work.  That’s the ultimate insurance policy against going down the tube.  It is easy to go out there and hit a swashbuckling life-century in a one-off flourish of strokes.  There are thousands of one-hit wonders in the world of music.  They don’t set standards, they are not remembered. 

Sport, like life, is unforgiving.  Cheers for the hero, boos for those who fail.  Boos too for those heroes who refuse to acknowledge the fact when time comes a-calling to whittle away edge in quantities that no amount of practice can recover.  No boos for those who give their all to the work they do, those who excel, suffer form loss but recover to excel again and who know when to exit. No boos for Murali. None for Warne.  None for Vivian Richards and I am certain none for one Sachin Tendulkar. 

Cook is just 26 years old.  The best may be yet to come and he could very well end up standing among the all time greats of the game. This series might be a turning point. It will no doubt persuade him to set stiffer targets for himself.  There will be out-of-form times, pedestrian performances over a series or two. If, however, he is to stand with the greats, he will have to do what he seems to have done during good times and bad: hard work. 

The lives of great human beings in whatever field are common these respects. They were madly in love with their work.  Through praise and blame, fame and vilification, joy and sorrow, profit and loss, they remain unwaveringly focused on the ‘must-things’ of their vocation.  Kobe Bryant makes thousands of dollars every minute. So does Tiger Woods.  Venus Williams, Roger Federer, Christiano Ronaldo and other top sports stars also make big bucks.  Vishy Anand, World Chess Champion also makes a lot of money. They all work hard. Everyday.  The same goes for all great artists.  The same goes for those who excel in whatever they do.  Discipline. Dedication. Humility.  That’s what makes the difference and what allows one to recover from form-slump.   Perhaps. 

I enjoyed following Alistair Cook’s incredible performances this Ashes series.  I will remember the numbers for a long time. I will remember his words about form and form-loss even longer. Even longer will I remember the fact that he is not (yet, perhaps) flashy but has the kind of attitude that makes a difference. A huge difference.  To self, team and nation.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com