Sam Cook: There’s still a place for ‘skill-based bowling’ at Test level

How do you measure the value of a contemporary English gem setter? Their motto has been downgraded in light of the Test team’s recent struggles – so much so that, at Taunton last week, Craig Overton’s stunning 13 for 87 for Somerset against Essex somehow looked like more a postscript of his ambitions in England than a mission statement. . It’s fine to vacuum when things are going well, naysayers will say, but can you bare your teeth on a flat terrace in Antigua?

It’s a concern that plagues England County’s top hopefuls, notably Overton’s opposite number in that agonizing one-wicket defeat. Sam Cook’s numbers for Essex at Taunton were less outstanding but all the more critical for his county’s first win of the season – most notably his first day of 3 for 17 in 15 overs, as he stalked the Somerset’s top six on his relentless full length and sent them spinning to a total of 109 first innings from which there would be no recovery.

At the age of 24, Cook quietly took over from another of England’s quasi-men, Jamie Porter, as the first designer of the most decorated red ball team of the decade. His crowning achievement (as it was) arguably came at Chelmsford in the final game of the summer of 2021, when he won the remarkable match numbers of 10 for 41 – nine of them on day one alone as Northamptonshire were routed by a round before 11am on day two.

And yet, as if to prove that such performances have lost their ability to impress, less than a month after that match, England had announced their Lions squad for the Australian tour, and Cook’s name (at least to beginning) was not found. Despite a season of 58 wickets at 2:43 p.m. (and a total of 107 at 5:08 p.m. since the start of 2019), the snub seemed to suggest that his card had been marked: an energetic and skilful average pace, no doubt, but some well below the absolute fast that the test team demanded.

“Yeah, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed not to be included,” Cook told ESPNcricinfo. “I felt like I had a really good year, my pace was good all year and I put in good numbers. I don’t think I could have done more, and especially during this Last match [against Northants], I had the impression that everything was linked. Since I started at Essex I feel like I probably deserve more returns than I got, so last year it was really nice to hit the 50 wicket target. It’s something I had in mind for a while.”

For reasons the ECB has never fully clarified, Cook’s omission was corrected a few weeks after the initial announcement, and he made the trip after all – following the Ashes team through a series preamble wet in Queensland and playing eight overs without a wicket in a rain otherwise. – Ruined warm-up apparatus.

But at the end of the winter, the feeling persisted that he was not quite the right person. Of the four uncapped setters in this intra-squad match, Cook alone would be omitted from the following “Test” against Australia A; Among the others, Saqib Mahmood and Matt Fisher would make their Caribbean debuts, while Warwickshire’s Liam Norwell has emerged, since Mark Wood’s elbow injury, as the next man in line.

The common factor in all of these favorite bowlers – and one that will not have been lost on Cook – is their ability to push up to 90 mph. And yet, while he remains realistic about the upper limits of his pace abilities, Cook still clings to the advice he received from Ed Smith, the former national manager, in 2021, who told him that everything bowler with two out of three facets – pace, precision and skill – could still have a place in England’s plans.

“The communication I had when I was with the Lions team was ‘we feel like you’re pretty quick or else you wouldn’t be here’,” he says. “I think I’ve definitely added some rhythm to my game because when I started you could probably say my rhythm was a problem. But there were a lot of bowlers who were very successful at the test of cricket who are not 90 mph bowlers.”

And to that end, he looks to the example of England’s groundbreaking performer over the past 12 months. Despite fitness issues that have clouded Ollie Robinson’s Caribbean tour, a 39-wicket run at 21.28 in his first nine appearances serves as overdue proof there’s still a place for bowling clever at the highest level.

“I took a lot of confidence out of that,” Cook said. “I’d be kidding if I said I’m going to be a 90mph bowler, because that’s not who I am. But you look at Mohammad Abbas, Vernon Philander, Ollie Robinson now…it proves that those skills that are favorable in county cricket can pass at Test level.

“It’s something that inspires me. Seeing someone who is probably a more skill-based bowler, it’s really encouraging and gives you that little boost which, yes, what I do week after week Robbo has been phenomenal, but I’m not surprised at all because his skill levels are so high, so those are the guys I’m trying to be as good, if not better, and trying to keep up with that kind of path.”

Because of this, Cook is determined to see only the positives of an otherwise frustrating winter – most notably the opportunity, despite the bleak outlook in Australia, to rub elbows with England’s Testing elite and glean some first-hand wisdom. which might not otherwise have come its way.

“For me, I thought it was a fantastic experience,” he says. “Obviously there were challenges, mainly with the weather, but once we came out of the bubble phase and got to Brisbane, I learned a lot about the England setup. you don’t get involved in a test team, it’s a – a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the preparation that goes into an Ashes.”

In particular, according to Cook, it’s the use of the legendary swing-seam delivery that could help take his game to the next level. It’s a weapon James Anderson is said to have learned from Pakistani Mohammad Asif in 2010, and has since sown among his English colleagues – notably his oldest ally Stuart Broad, with whom Cook has now discussed the method.

“I talked a lot with Stuart Broad about how he was playing with it,” Cook said. “Obviously you’re still looking to hit a good area with the new ball and try to shape it, because the Kookaburra doesn’t swing as long and the seam gets softer faster, but all of those skills are a bit focused More in Australia There’s an element of reverse swing, and using your bouncer, and adjusting your length, and that comes with experience.

“I’ve had a few quality cricket winters in Australia, but playing with and against the best every day in training is a totally different experience. I’ve learned so much and just tried to make the most of it. they got into it. Obviously I would have liked to play more cricket on the trip, but the weather kinda stopped that. But I got a lot out of it, and those are all things I’m going to try and implement this season.”

Two games into the new Championship campaign, Cook is already settling into a familiar pattern in charge of Essex’s attack. He has taken seven wickets at 4:00 p.m. so far, but in many ways it was his performance amidst adversity on a flat deck at Chelmsford that says more about his progress than his five-wicket display in the win over Taunton. In a relentless 581 inning in Kent – ​​backed by hundreds for Ben Compton and Jordan Cox – Cook was the standout tailor with 2-for-63 numbers in 32 overs, and the only man in innings with a rate saving less than 2 .

“There’s no better feeling as a setter than when you step into one of those spells where you feel like every ball you can take a wicket,” Cook said. “But I have this mentality no matter what, even on a flat pitch or if the ball is soft, I sincerely believe that I can take a wicket on every ball, and sometimes it turns into one of those spells when you really are To do feel you can get a wicket on every ball.

“It’s a lot of the mindset, a lot of the pace, but last season my average was probably the most enjoyable thing for me because at the end of the day you want to take wickets for the fewer races possible.”

Either way for Cook, there is no doubt his wicket-to-wicket methods will be at the heart of Essex’s bid for even more silverware this season, following the relative disappointment of their Second Division crown last summer, having won either the championship or the Bob Willis Trophy in three of the previous four seasons.

“A big priority at Essex is how focused we are on the success of the team, and sometimes if you put the team first your individual performances might not be as noticed,” Cook said. . “But it’s the selfless nature of our team. It shows how far we’ve come as a team, even though we won Division Two very comfortably last season, we weren’t happy with that.

“Because of the format last year, we had a few games where we didn’t play our best, and we were out of it. This year it looks like it’s ready to go, it’s a good season. that we had before Covid. So everyone is excited and our target, as always, is to win this championship.”

Winning a chance with England would be nice too. But while Cook waits for the call that may or may not come, he can look forward to recent displays from another stalwart of Essex’s recent red ball dominance. Simon Harmer’s return to Test action for South Africa against Bangladesh gave 13 wickets at 15.15 in a 2-0 series win, and further proof that the gulf to international cricket has not need not be as vast as England’s recent setbacks would lead one to believe.

“It’s another kind of confidence building that county cricket is a good indicator of whether or not you’ll pass the cricket test,” Cook said. “If eventually, hopefully, I get the opportunity to represent England, it’s more confident that you deserve to be there and that the performances you’ve put in in county cricket still stand you in good stead. “