ONE of the biggest imponderables going into the Ashes was whether Alastair Cook would discover some form.
The England batsman had endured a lean time of it in the run-up to the series, managing only 106 runs in eight innings prior to his century against Pakistan at The Oval last August.
Australia viewed Cook as a possible weak link, while England's supporters were similarly minded.
It smacked of a make-or-break rubber for the Essex opener, who had averaged just 26.21 in 10 Ashes Tests.
Australia's suspicions and England's concerns were hardly allayed during the opening tour match.
Cook scored five in the first innings of the fixture against Western Australia before being bowled by a ball that bounced off his body.
He managed only nine second time around before being bowled as he tried to work across the line.
While Andrew Strauss hit form with a second innings hundred, his opening partner looked painfully out of sorts.
But in the second tour match against South Australia, things began to click into place.
Cook struck 32 in the first innings and, in the second, made 111 not out as he and Strauss added 181.
One could almost smell the relief in an England camp accustomed to defending Cook at every turn.
At last he had let his bat do the talking, ending a period of intense frustration.
From then on, Cook has not looked back, leaving a string of records trailing in his wake.
When he scored 189 at Sydney yesterday (his third hundred of the series after an unbeaten 235 at Brisbane and 148 at Adelaide), he lifted his series tally to 766 – the second-highest by an England batsman in a Test series after Walter Hammond's 905 against Australia in 1928-29 during the days of timeless Tests.
Whereas Hammond had nine innings, Cook had played only seven.
His average was also superior to that of Hammond, who averaged 113.12 against an Australian attack that included only one world-class bowler in leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett.
Cook's aggregate is also the fifth-highest in an Ashes series, the 13th-best in any Test series and the most since Brian Lara made 798 for the West Indies against England in 1993-94, which included a then world-record score of 375.
Cook's total time at the crease (2,171 minutes) is also the most by an Englishman in a Test series and the third overall behind Australia's Mark Taylor and Pakistan's Mudassar Nazar.
That latter statistic is particularly revealing, for it highlights why Cook has performed so well.
The 26-year-old has made it his mission to occupy the crease and construct his innings – a dying art in the modern game.
In spectacular contrast to Australia opener Phil Hughes, who goes at the ball like a bull in a china shop, Cook has showcased the merits of steady accumulation.
In the Twenty20 era, that is quite an achievement, with players' techniques having steadily waned.
Like former Yorkshire and England batsman Geoffrey Boycott, whose own best Ashes series aggregate of 677 he passed yesterday, Cook seems to work in a cocoon of concentration.
Boycott famously remarked that he would not have heard if anyone was sledging him, so engrossed was he in the task at hand.
Cook possesses similar concentration, while his Test average of 47.50 is remarkably similar to that of Boycott (47.72).
Cook's ability to shut out everything that is going on around him was once again evidenced by his hundred in Sydney.
When, on 46, he skied Michael Beer to mid-on only for replays to show the left-arm spinner had bowled a no-ball, he did not allow himself to be fazed.
Even more impressive, when one short of his third hundred of the series, he remained unaffected when Hughes claimed a catch off Beer at short-leg when the ball had clearly touched the ground.
One could think of many players who would have been so incensed by such unsporting conduct they would have reacted angrily and lost concentration.
He just continued on his merry way and so nearly completed his second double hundred of the tour before driving a ball from Shane Watson to Michael Hussey in the gully.
Incidentally, a word on Hughes.
For that blatant act of cheating, for that is precisely what it was, he should be banned for one Test match – and his captain likewise.
That way, players would soon get the message that such actions are unacceptable, with Hughes guilty of one of the most blatant transgressions one could possibly witness.
Cook – who is twice the player Hughes will ever be – also passed 5,000 Test runs during the course of his innings.
Only Sachin Tendulkar reached that landmark at a younger age, emphasising how far Cook has come and what he might achieve.
Cook is not – and probably never will be – a truly great player.
He does not take the breath away in the manner of a Kevin Pietersen – England's only truly great player in my view – and goes about his business in unpretentious style.
When James Anderson said the other day that Cook is more talented than Pietersen, he was talking hogwash.
But there is no doubt that a man perceived by many Australians a few weeks ago as a walking wicket – not to mention a good many Englishmen – can be a bedrock of England's batting for years to come.
DISPLAY OF THE DAY
Celebrated his first Ashes century, striking 13 boundaries in his 115 off 232 deliveries – his century coming off 209 balls –
and sharing a crucial sixth-wicket stand of 154 with opener Alastair Cook as Australia wilted against England.