In Good Conscience

Lacking finesse, Cook and Kane shine through sheer willpower

The English invented cricket and developed and codified modern football, and exported them around the globe. For most of the last century, Brits have had to bite the bottom lip and applaud foreigners outplaying us at our own games.

The Ashes are going Down Under. The World Cup is not expected to "Come Home" any time soon.

But we might jolly well raise a glass or two to players who are ending 2017 with fortitude to make us proud to be British.

Step forward Alastair Cook. Over Wednesday and Thursday, England's opening batsman stayed at the crease for 10hr 33min to prevent Australia turning a rout into a whitewash. England had lost the three previous Tests, and thus the Ashes but, in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, Cook compiled 244 not out.

In that innings, he climbed above Mahela Jayawardene, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Brian Lara to become sixth-highest run scorer in Test history.

• Sachin Tendulkar (India): 15,921

• Ricky Ponting (Australia): 13,378

• Jacques Kallis (South Africa): 13,289

• Rahul Dravid (India): 13,288

• Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka): 12,400

• Alastair Cook (England): 11,956

• Brian Lara (West Indies): 11,953

• Shivnarine Chanderpaul (West Indies): 11,867

• Mahela Jayawardene (Sri Lanka): 11,814

If there is one trait that entitles Cook to even appear on the same page as the great Lara, it would be his power of concentration. In the arts of the game, in flowing batsmanship, Lara would otherwise dwarf the Englishman.

A shorter list shows Harry Kane's strike rate throughout the calendar year:

• Harry Kane (Tottenham): 52 games, 56 goals

• Lionel Messi (Barcelona): 64 games, 54 goals

• Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich): 55 games, 53 goals

• Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid): 59 games, 53 goals

• Edinson Cavani (Paris St Germain): 62 games, 53 goals

It helped that the English leagues play on while the others go into mid-winter hibernation. Kane scored a hat-trick at Burnley last Saturday, and another three goals against Southampton at Wembley on Tuesday completed the Spurs man's phenomenal year.

Of course, Messi is the best player on earth because he pops up here, there and everywhere in a team performance. Cristiano is the big game scorer who, throughout the past decade, has gone measure for measure against Messi.

Kane in that company? Actually, on goals per game he is ahead of those gods in 2017.

Once again, the key is concentration. Kane is not blessed with the genius of Messi or the peacock array of Ronaldo skills.

But Kane, like Cook, has willed himself towards their pedestal.

Kane will never be blessed with the pace that Cristiano had at the peak of his career. Nor with the nimble sorcery with which Messi can, and so often does, turning five opponents inside out while he slaloms towards scoring or making a goal out of his imagination.

Kane was born sturdy. Cook, by his own definition, is "never going to look pretty, but my batting sometimes is effective.

Kane was born sturdy. Cook, by his own definition, is "never going to look pretty, but my batting sometimes is effective".

That is understatement, British style. Where Cook scores is to persevere, to stand his ground, to duck the bouncers and pick off the balls he can safely hit. And to persevere through the worst time of his career until, admittedly with the Ashes lost and the Aussies quite possibly in a job-done frame of mind, he just battled through one of history's mammoth innings.

Cook rode his luck. Australia's captain Steve Smith dropped catches off him at 66 runs, and again at 153. But you earn your luck, and Stuart Broad, who put together a century stand with Cook, summed up: "I don't think you play this much international sport without some kind of deep inner self-confidence that you can call on when you are very low.

"Every time you step on the field, you are pretty much playing for your career."

Yes indeed, sport is cruel and exacting at the top.

In Kane's case, it was tough on the way up. He was born within 10 km of White Hart Lane, and grew up dreaming about the legends Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Smith, Martin Chivers and Teddy Sheringham.

Though he joined the Tottenham youth system at 11 (after failing a brief spell with the enemy, Arsenal) the coaches thought he lacked pace and was a bit cumbersome. What impressed them was his incredible desire, and his willingness to work, to self-improve.

Tottenham saw him initially as a holding midfielder, and loaned him out in his teens to Leyton Orient, to Millwall, then Norwich, then Leicester.

England's opening batsman Alastair Cook hooking the ball away during the fourth Ashes Test at the MCG on Thursday. His defiant stand of 244 not out exemplifies his never-say-die attitude, despite a poor showing in the first three Tests. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Kane, like Cook, kept striving. He kept believing. Kept turning up and badgering every trainer, every nutrition expert, every former player, as to how he might improve.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino wrote in his book Brave New World: "Kane is a warrior, the best player in the world in terms of mental strength, willpower and endeavour."

Best in the world? Bigger clubs than Tottenham are watching him. Kane at 24 is entering those prime years when physical maturity gels with accumulated experience.

He craves trophies. Any aspiring player should. He wants them first and foremost with his beloved Spurs. But what if Tottenham's window of opportunity passed two seasons ago, when Leicester pipped them to win the EPL? What happens when Tottenham try to hold on to him if the trophy cabinet remains bare?

Kane has the best contract Tottenham pay anyone, around £110,000 (S$198,000) a week, with bonuses on top. Yet Real are hunting for a star to replace Karim Benzema, maybe even to fill the golden boots of CR7.

Kane's roots give him every reason for contentment at Spurs. But there will be advisers, and maybe even that inner voice called ambition, tempting him.

Two hundred thousand Singapore dollars a week should keep the hometown boy happy. Yet Madrid, and others, might treble the wage, and dangle silver trophies into the bargain.

To stay or to go? His boyhood club, the team built around him, a fiancee and baby daughter settled?

Or the urge to reach for greater glory with the same fearless instinct brings him goals?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Lacking finesse, Cook and Kane shine through sheer willpower'. Print Edition | Subscribe