After 161 matches, 291 innings and 12,472 runs, Alastair Cook drew stumps on his Test career following the recent match at the Oval against India. It proved to be the much hoped for fairy tale ending with victory for England and Cook compiling his 33rd Test hundred in his final innings. The esteem in which Cook is held amongst English cricket fans was amply demonstrated throughout the match but never more so than with the extraordinary ovation that greeted his century, gifted to him though it was via overthrows.
Swept up in the emotion of the occasion it is tempting to make bold statements about Cook’s place in the game and in particular his status as an opening batsman. There can be no doubt that the statistics make impressive reading. Alastair Cook ends his Test career as England’s most capped player (the seventh highest of all time). He is England’s most prolific run maker (number five on the all time list) and also has the most number of Test centuries made by an Englishman (number ten of all time). With a total of 26,562 he faced more deliveries than any English player before him. Alastair Cook will be missed by many but perhaps by no-one more than whoever is batting number three for England.
For the most part however these are figures of volume that honour Cook’s longevity at the pinnacle of the game. The statistic that reveals most about a player is their average and at a tick over forty-five Cook falls short of the fifty benchmark that signifies the truly great (even if we allow a couple of points discount for the challenge that attaches to going in first). In reality Cook was a somewhat limited player. Indeed much of the credit that is his due lies in the fact that he made so much of the ability that he did possess. To suggest that he was susceptible to a good length ball just outside off stump hardly makes him Robinson Crusoe but for much of his career the prospect of Cook nicking off to slip added to the anxiety that invariably heralds the start of an England innings. Arguably even the longevity of Cook’s career owed something to the lack of competition for his spot. In later years the gaps between significant contributions grew yet since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012 the dearth of quality openers has meant that Cook’s omission from the side would be unthinkable. It still is.
So where to place Alastair Cook in the annals of English openers? It is an irresistible opportunity for a list and so I offer the following as an all time Top Ten of England’s Test openers.
10. Michael Atherton
Tests: 115 Runs: 7,728 Highest Score: 185* Ave: 37.69 Hundreds: 16
Michael Atherton’s figures alone do not warrant a place in this Top Ten but nor do figures alone tell a cricketer’s tale. In truth it is only his average at a mediocre 37.69 that does not belong in this company. The fact is that for most of his eleven year Test career Atherton’s was the wicket that opponents most wanted. He had the misfortune to play through the 1990’s, a decade which proved to be a true low point in English cricket. Without Atherton’s dogged defiance at the top of the order England would have found themselves in an even more parlous state. One cannot write of Michael Atherton without recalling his defining moment against South Africa in 1995 to save the Johannesburg Test with a marathon knock of 185 not out made over a painstaking 643 minutes. To balance the ledger there was his almost embarrassing record against Glenn McGrath who managed to dismiss him a world record nineteen times in Test matches. However, perhaps the statistic that tells you most about the steel that Atherton brought to an otherwise malleable England team is that he averaged 97.21 balls faced per innings. As a point of comparison, Alastair Cook averaged 91.27. Who better to open a list of greatest openers?
9. Michael Vaughan
Tests: 82 Runs: 5,719 Highest Score: 197 Ave: 41.44 Hundreds: 18
Michael Vaughan is the only entry in this list who played a sizeable portion of his career other than as an opener. Just under half of his 147 Test innings were played at the top of the order but it is here that he had most success for England scoring 3,093 runs at an average of 45.48. Vaughan moved into the opener’s slot following the retirement of Michael Atherton in 2001. The following year he had a personally triumphant tour against an Australian team at the peak of their dominance. Despite England losing the series 4-1 his 633 runs including three centuries earned him the player of the series award with his 183 in the second innings in Sydney setting up England’s only win. Vaughan’s period as an opener for England may have been briefer than others in this list but it was a period that saw him rise to No. 1 in the world Test rankings and secures his place in this list.
8. John Edrich
Tests: 77 Runs: 5,138 Highest Score: 310* Ave: 43.54 Hundreds: 12
John Edrich was my first cricket hero but he makes this list on merit. Edrich was another in the tradition of dour, courageous English openers but he made runs when they mattered. The fact that seven of his twelve Test hundreds came against the old enemy, Australia, is a testament to his fighting spirit in the face of the sternest opposition. Edrich’s finest innings came early in his career when he scored a mammoth 310 not out in 1965 against New Zealand at Headingly. However a decade later he was still leading from the front with a match saving 175 in the second innings at Lords against Australia.
7. Andrew Strauss
Tests: 100 Runs: 7,037 Highest Score: 177 Ave: 40.91 Hundreds: 21
Andrew Strauss in partnership with Alastair Cook shares the third highest aggregate of runs (4,711) of any opening pair in history behind the great West Indian pairing of Gordon Greenidge & Desmond Haynes and Australia’s Justin Langer & Matthew Hayden. Underlining his importance to England in the first decade of this century he also features at number twelve on the same list in partnership with Marcus Trescothick. Strauss probably enjoyed his proudest moments in battles with Australia which never harms the status of any player in English eyes. He was a major contributor in the drought breaking series victory of 2005 making a vital 106 in the second innings of the third match at Old Trafford to earn England a draw and keep the series level. He then followed that up with 129 in the final drawn Test at the Oval securing series victory for England. By 2010 Strauss was captain of the triumphant tour to Australia contributing again with a century in the first Test at Brisbane and half centuries in both the innings victories in Melbourne and Sydney.
6. Alastair Cook
Tests: 161 Runs: 12,472 Highest Score: 294 Ave: 45.35 Hundreds: 33
Placing a newly retired player into historical context is a challenge. It is as if we can scrutinise every aspect of his game under a microscope whilst recollections of other players have receded to the point where it is only with the aid of a telescope that we can glimpse an outline of their greatness. What we can say about Alastair Cook with confidence is that he is England’s greatest opener of this century and given the perilous nature in which Test cricket finds itself that statement may yet hold true by century’s end.
5. Graham Gooch
Tests: 118 Runs: 8,900 Highest Score: 333 Ave: 42.58 Hundreds: 20
Graham Gooch’s Test career spanned twenty years from an ignominious debut in 1975 when he made a pair batting at number five to his final appearance in 1995. Both matches were against Australia and both matches ended in heavy defeat. In between Graham Gooch was the stable anchor around which England’s leaky ship navigated some pretty choppy waters. Gooch faced some of the fastest, most hostile bowling that the game has seen. In that debut match he was up against Lillee and Thommo and by the end of his career he was attempting to play a straight bat to Glenn McGrath. In between came the barrage of bowlers that led the West Indies decade of dominance in the1980s. Little wonder that his overall average lags a little but don’t doubt that Graham Gooch was a mighty player who, particularly in the latter part of his career held up a weak England side on his somewhat stooped shoulders. Gooch was a player who seemed to grow in stature over the years. His highest score of 333 came at Lords in 1990 against India just after his thirty-seventh birthday and he was just short of his forty-first birthday when he made his only other Test score in excess of 200 (210 against New Zealand at Trent Bridge). By the time of his retirement he was comfortably England’s highest ever run scorer and to this day has been surpassed only by Alastair Cook.
4. Geoffrey Boycott
Tests: 108 Runs: 8,114 Highest Score: 246* Ave: 47.72 Hundreds: 22
Dour, defensive, selfish. All these adjectives apply in some measure to Geoffrey Boycott but if we were to apply the old adage of picking a player to bat for your life then Boycs would have to be a serious part of the conversation. Cricket does not produce players of Boycott’s ilk anymore and the Test arena has lost something as a result. England’s greatest opener since Hutton understood his purpose to examine every bowler and sell his wicket dearly which he did on most occasions. In 193 Test innings he cleared the rope just eight times. A true advocate of the philosophy that you can’t be caught if you keep it on the ground. Boycott was the sort of player who you noticed most when he wasn’t there. His self-imposed exile during the captaincy of Mike Denness whilst seen by many as an example of his cussedness also meant that he missed the notorious tour to Australia in 1974-5 which would have provided the ultimate examination of his skills against Lillee and Thompson at their best.
3. Herbert Sutcliffe
Tests: 54 Runs: 4,555 Highest Score: 194 Ave: 60.73 Hundreds: 16
Herbert Sutcliffe formed one half of arguably the greatest opening partnership of all time alongside Jack Hobbs. The start of his career was delayed by the First World War and he did not make his first class debut until 1919 when he was twenty-four. However he quickly established a prolific partnership with Percy Holmes at the top of the order for his home county of Yorkshire and by 1924 he was in the England team. Whilst it is difficult to compare players across generations and impossible to assess those that you never saw play the statistics survive and demand respect. Herbert Sutcliffe averaged over sixty across fifty-four Test matches and scored 149 first class centuries. Team-mate Frank Woolley once said of him, “he was a mighty proposition with at least two strokes and plenty of time for every ball bowled.” Sound qualifications for the job description of opening batsman.
2. Jack Hobbs
Tests: 61 Runs: 5,410 Highest Score: 211 Ave: 56.94 Hundreds: 15
Hobbs opened No 1 to Sutcliffe’s No. 2 and that is also the correct order for this list. Indeed such was the magnitude of Hobbs’ career that if we were to break it into pre and post First World War then the great man would likely have two entries in this list. Hobbs made 61,237 first class runs. He made 197 centuries half of which came when he had passed the age of forty. His record as the oldest man to make a Test century at age forty-six is one that will surely never be surpassed. Cricket was a different game in Hobbs’ day and critics will argue that his statistics might be over valued as a result but his career spanned long enough that he found himself adjusting his technique as the game evolved around him. Contemporary accounts speak of two phases to Hobbs’ career moving from an attacking stroke player pre-war to a more back foot dependant accumulator of runs in the very extended twilight of his career. It would be rash to suggest that such a player would not have been able to adapt to any era of the game.
1. Leonard Hutton
Tests: 79 Runs: 6,971 Highest Score: 364 Ave: 56.67 Hundreds: 19
Arguably England’s greatest batsman in any position the numbers speak for themselves. He scored a total of just over 40,000 runs across his first class career reaching one hundred centuries in 619 innings, the lowest ratio by an Englishman. In Test matches he passed 400 runs in a series eight times.
In 1938 aged just twenty-two Hutton made a world high Test score of 364 at The Oval. This was a record that would last for nearly twenty years until overtaken by Gary Sobers. Outstanding though these figures are one can only imagine how they might read if Hutton, like Hobbs, had not lost many of his peak years to war-time. He had just turned twenty-three when Test matches were brought to a halt by the Second World War and he resumed the day before his thirtieth birthday against India at Lords. As such that some of his greatest achievements came through the latter years of his career when increasingly he carried the batting of an England team in transition. He was the outstanding batsman on either side as the Ashes were regaining in England in 1953 with his crowning achievement as captain being their retention eighteen months later in Australia.
Reviewing the quality of players on this list it is tempting to suggest that England’s major contribution to the game has been its production line of great openers. There is something about the requirements of the role, the need to prioritise caution and defence above more cavalier inclinations that marry well with England’s traditionally conservative approach to the game. Alastair Cook was very much of that mould and it is because of this that he so endeared himself to his public. He was indeed the very model of a modern English opener.
Note: The figures stated for each player reflect their full Test career rather than matches played as an opener.
Image Credit: Dan Heap