Essex’s Sam Cook and England Lions hungry for a taste of cricket’s big time | England cricket team

TOcross the sea from the football and following a bellyful of white-ball cricket, England’s men turn their attention to the red. Abu Dhabi hosts a three-day match against the Lions starting on Wednesday before Ben Stokes and his squad jet to Pakistan for next week’s first Test in Rawalpindi.

As well as a tune-up for the three-match series, this comes at an interesting time for the Lions. English cricket’s high-performance review may have met stiff resistance over its proposed domestic structure but among the recommendations which can be adopted without approval from the counties is greater investment in the second string.

As the report states, the Lions should be “elevated” with an “80%” focus on red ball. As such, camps such as the one undertaken over the past fortnight may well increase, offering even more access to senior coaches and players – Jimmy Anderson, for example, has been out from the start – plus the chance to impress on the field.

“It’s a great trip development-wise and that fixture against the Test team at the end is what you’re working towards,” says Sam Cook, the Essex seamer who earned his first Lions call-up last winter and is hoping for the nod this week.

“You want to put yourself in the shop window for the Test coaches against the best players in the country, the guys you hope will be team-mates in future.

England have 30 players on the ground – 15 in the full squad, 15 in the Lions – and with the match at the Sheikh Zayed complex not first-class, it may be a rolling cast. Among the hopefuls are Rehan Ahmed, Leicestershire’s 18-year-old leg-spin prodigy, and three Test-capped cricketers in Haseeb Hameed, Matt Fisher and Matt Potts.

Cook is another up-and-comer pushing hard with only four quicks in the main party. Back in September, when he had Yorkshire’s Tom Kohler-Cadmore caught at third slip, the 25-year-old became the first English bowler since Alan Ward in 1971 to reach the 200 first-class wicket milestone with a bowling average under 20 (19.59 ).

A right-armer who allies remorseless accuracy with skill, Cook is doing something batters don’t like and England’s interest has been piqued. Pace tends to get brought up at this juncture but Cook, having made strides over the past two years, is relaxed.

Rehan Ahmed, Leicestershire's 18-year-old leg-spinner, is another Lions player looking to impress.
Rehan Ahmed, Leicestershire’s 18-year-old leg-spinner, is another Lions player looking to impress. Photograph: John Mallett/ProSports/Shutterstock

“There’s two aspects to the question of pace,” says Cook, who boasts two County Championship titles in 2017 and 2019, a T20 Blast win and was man of the final with four wickets when Trent Rockets won the men’s hundred this year.

“Personally I’m not concerned about pace in terms of getting Test players out. I’ve already done it and at Test venues, so I have the confidence I can do it at Test level. I’ve built my game on consistency and am trying to take the little bits of information to keep rounding all aspects of my game, whether that’s fitness, pace or skills.

“But then if you can move the ball consistently at a higher pace, it will only improve you – maybe more low nicks to slip actually carry. I’ve added a bit over the past two years but I’m not 100% focused on it. There’s no quick fix to add 5mph – if a coach knew that, they’d have the keys to the sport. It’s about small adjustments. I’ll never be 90mph, I just want to do what I do as quickly as possible.”

In a reminder that hothousing Lions players still relies on the production line of the counties, Cook credits Essex for his rise and the constant encouragement of Alastair Cook – Chef to his Little Chef and the Chelmsford dressing room’s 161-cap sage since retiring from Test cricket in 2018.

“He’s been incredible,” says Sam Cook. “He cops a bit about the knighthood – ‘can I get you a drink, sir?’, bowing, that sort of thing – but you realize how lucky you are to have him there week in, week out. He’s helped me massively – a bit of an oracle.”

Abu Dhabi is where Cook senior played England’s longest Test innings, an 863-minute Olympic breakfast of a vigil against Pakistan in 2015 which nearly set up a famous win. Under Brendon McCullum as head coach, England do things a touch quicker and the younger Cook, like the Lions as a whole, have got the message.

He adds: “My priority is Test cricket. As a fan – a bit of a badger – this summer was amazing to watch. Brendon also joined us at training for the Lions. He was an amazing block to chat to but also delivered a message to the group about entertaining and being aggressive. It only spurs you on.”

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