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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Alastair Cook: What next for England's highest Test run scorer after troubled New Zealand series?

Opening batsman endured a torrid time as questions over his future arise

These are troubled times for opening batsmen in Test cricket.

Australia's David Warner and Cameron Bancroft are left without a game for the next 12 months and nine months respectively following the ball-tampering saga which has shamed not only the Australia side but left a stain on the entire game.

And then there is the case of England's Alastair Cook, very much the antithesis of Warner's snarling, macho on-pitch persona, who is instead a pillar of sporting etiquette, a former choir boy who lives the quiet life and goes about his business at the crease without any need for drama.

But Cook finds himself in a situation where it is possible that he too could be missing from Test arena during the remainder of 2018. His misdemeanour is a lack of runs as his position at the top of the order comes into question once again following a woeful series in New Zealand which mustered a mere 23 runs from four innings, as England were beaten 1-0 after New Zealand held out for a draw in the Second Test with two wickets remaining.

For a player who has made 154 consecutive Test appearances, Cook can be forgiven a rough patch or two. He is England's highest run scorer in Tests, has scored the most Test centuries for his country and has been the constant in an ever-changing opening partnership since Andrew Strauss retired.

The heavyweight career statistics however have been muddied in more recent times by his tendency for feast or famine.

In 2017, he scored 899 Test runs at an average of 47.31 - highly commendable and on first look the performance you would expect from one of the greats.

Dig a little deeper and it starts to unravel. If you remove the double hundred Cook scored against the West Indies in August and another against Australia in December, he scored 412 runs at 22.88. Since the West Indies double ton, and excluding the Ashes double, he has posted 216 runs in 16 innings at an average of 13.5.

Ramon Penas / The National
Ramon Penas / The National

Most batsmen would be looking over their shoulder and be mighty concerned for their future - which Cook readily admitted he was during the Ashes series last winter when he said he was "embarrassed" by his form.

“It was a kind of feeling like last-chance saloon. When you’re in those positions and you dig yourself out, it makes you proud," he said at the time. "I would have been entitled to be dropped just because I hadn’t scored a run since Edgbaston [243 against West Indies]."

Fortunately for Cook, though not for his country, England are hardly spoilt for choice in the opening batsman department.

Mark Stoneman has clawed his Test average above 30 having made two half-centuries in New Zealand, but England will not want to pair him with another comparative rookie, especially with the middle order containing the inexperienced Dawid Malan and James Vince. Had this been the England team with the experience of Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Andrew Strauss, the conditions could have been such that the exclusion of Cook would't have been as potentially seismic as they could be now.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 30:  Alastair Cook of England looks dejected after being dismissed by Trent Boult of New Zealand during day one of the Second Test match between New Zealand and England at Hagley Oval on March 30, 2018 in Christchurch, New Zealand.  (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
Alastair Cook of England looks dejected after being dismissed by Trent Boult of New Zealand during day one of the Second Test match between New Zealand and England at Hagley Oval on March 30, 2018 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Kai Schwoerer / Getty Images

Haseeb Hameed impressed in his debut series in India in 2016 as a 19-year-old, but he endured a difficult domestic season in 2017. He told The National on Sunday about his intention to win back a place at the top of the England order.

At 33, Cook should still have some years left in the tank, a view shared by England batting coach Graham Thorpe during this week's Second Test defeat in Christchurch.

"I do see a guy who is still hungry," said Thorpe. "Over the years we've come to know how he operates. We're always saying he's just a few hours at the crease away from a big score, so that's the bit he has to keep in his mind as well."

Unless Cook himself pulls the plug on his outstanding career, his next opportunity should come on home soil against Pakistan in May before India arrive for a five-Test series starting in August.

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He had little trouble scoring runs in county cricket during the early months of last summer, compiling three centuries for Essex during their title winning campaign before he was summoned for Test duty. It will be interesting to see how much domestic cricket he is exposed to this time around in a bid to find form and iron out the technical deficiencies before the Pakistan series.

In Cook's favour is his iron-will and determination to grind out scores when others around him are failing. He can bat for long periods using a technique which relies upon three scoring options - the flick off the legs, the forward push down the ground and the square cut. These limitations however mean that he can't hit his way back into form, and, as we saw in New Zealand, when head, body and arms are not totally in sync, a short period at the crease brings a paltry return.

For now he is likely to be trusted on the premise that New Zealand was a short series and he has a history of coming good at just the right time. Furthermore he averages in the high 40s against Pakistan and India on home turf.

But the feeling that England's rock is crumbling won't go away until he puts a run of scores together against top-level opposition. And unless that happens, the left-hander, currently on 12,028 Test runs, will end up some way short of Sachin Tendulkar's record of 15,921 which a year ago seemed reachable.