It may still be the case that the third Test in Kolkata is marked by some defining contribution – a second-innings dash, a short-leg masterclass – from England's middle-order craftsman Ian Bell, a player who reached a plateau of gorgeously well-grooved cricketing maturity 18 months ago, only to suffer an unexpected and continuing regression. Certainly Bell has been trying to jolly himself around after returning to India from his childbirth sabbatical.
"Becoming a parent gives me more of a balance and I can enjoy every day with the England team," he said this week, seeming to suggest that the additional perspective of a new father – so, so much perspective – will inevitably lead to a sense of flinty-eyed and seasoned maturity, and thereby to ever greater feats of run-gathering.
The new-baby-mid-career-run-harvest narrative is a familiar one, albeit it is generally best applied to some grand but wasted talent, some wafting booze-hound who, newly encumbered with child, will in time settle down and begin to reel off those dutiful hundreds. In this case, though, Bell's remarks seemed to be presented as though this is all now a given. Kid. Perspective. Runs. Yeah, that's him.
Never mind that the perspective offered by having children is, in the main, one of severely heightened anxiety and fatigue, wearied acceptance of the spirit-crushing manacles of familial responsibility, plus the whole dank and horrifying disarray of secretions and expulsions and crumb-strewn estate cars crammed with shin-barking items of aggressively marketed baby-tat. Never mind that Bell hasn't been the same player since being spooked by Saeed Ajmal's doosra in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, or that this is perhaps just a natural kink in the upward tilt of an outstanding but still delicately-phrased talent.
What seems to matter here is the certainty of this equation: fatherhood + new-found gravitas = instant runs. It is as though, given out caught behind for five in the first innings, Bell should have responded not by shaking his head or looking at the sky, but by wrenching from his pocket a hank of soiled baby wipes, or unhooking the parked Maclaren behind the wicketkeeper's helmet and trudging off shaking his head in paternal disbelief.
More realistically, it is to be hoped that fatherhood will have only averagely ruinous effects on Bell, who is, on form, everybody's favourite middle-order dreamboat. That the horrors of infant cohabitation are kind, that the initial period of exhausted hormonal baby-love extends beyond the usual toddler full stop, after which the stoically wilting parent will scratch his head a few times, wipe the sleep dust from his eyes and realise that he has basically been on drugs for the past three years and that, wrinkled, worn and isolated from his peers, he is now obliged to enter the post-wonder years of tarnished and depleted reality, the age of tantrum, the hard yakka of party bags and times tables and did-you-hit-him-tell-the-truth-Damien.
Either way, and no matter what anybody else produces from here, the current Test is going to remain Alastair Cook's Match, mainly thanks to his own statistical milestone of 23 Test hundreds, but also for reasons related to these same notions of maturity and personal progression. There has been a mass groping for the apt superlative to describe England's captain over the past few days. Two things beyond the numbers seem to stand out. First, Cook is a genuine oddity in that as a batsman he gets more picturesque as he gets older, a reversal of the usual process whereby players will become more crabbed, more obviously scaly as they mature. Cook on the other hand has bloomed. Previously his cut shot looked a bit like a sneeze, an itch, an unrepeatable accident. Asked to up the tempo he could call on a range of attacking offside strokes described on this page as reminiscent of an arthritic family retainer thrashing at the scullery mice with a yard broom.
No longer, though. Cook is now jarringly elegant. A shift in tone as much as tempo has occurred and, where once his attacking strokes were like the nips and prods of a startled hermit crab, now even his defence carries the veiled threat of aggression. One-day cricket, which was supposed to ruin him, has instead added hidden gears. You could see the process in train two summers ago in a series of puppyish 50-over innings against Sri Lanka, when at times Cook seemed to be batting with a tennis racket, the ball skewing and ballooning into various unlikely empty spaces.
This instinct has been refined and Cook now has a dexterous attacking variety. He has at least three separate sweep shots. His cover drive flows with a dutifully bended knee, like a proposal of marriage to silly mid-off. Above all there is the miracle of that lofted six, dispatched in this match with an easy-flowing gymnastic action – who are you? And what have you done with Alastair Cook? – not associated with a man who previously had hit almost exactly 1% of his boundary strokes over rather than across the ropes.
Besides this, Cook has also become unexpectedly lovable. In the past there were those who might have felt there was something platitudinous and managed about this relentlessly groomed cricketer, darling of the central contract age. But Cook has shown himself instead to be a much rarer beast, an athlete capable of understated but significant mid-career improvement, of carefully embedded upward progress. Whereas Sachin Tendulkar basically emerged ready‑made at 17 and has spent the past 25 years just being himself over and over again, Cook seems uniquely admirable for his ability to learn and adapt.
I remember the exasperation on his face three years ago when his suggestion that he might in time become a bit like Matthew Hayden in one-day cricket met with a burst of laughter from a room full of journalists. Cook didn't say a word. His response has come in the intervening years, when he has – get this – scored quicker than Hayden overall and at a higher average.
Best of all, he still doesn't seem to care overly if you like him or not. Stoically contained, he's not searching for the hero inside himself, and he's definitely not on any kind of tearfully emoted journey. He is simply a cricketer engaged in a period of sporting dignity so rarified he seems for now almost unassailable: 28 years old on Christmas Day and already England's most prolific Test centurion. If he wasn't so agreeably perfect Cook might even take a moment to reflect on what is an impossibly buoyant moment of personal success. But he is, so he won't.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010