Alastair Cook is wearing the whitest of whites. Pristine doesn’t even cover it, his whites almost radiate. He purposefully strides across the Cardiff outfield. He looks like a legend, almost; god-like. His team has failed to win three of their last four Test series. His batting has flirted with pathetic. He was embarrassed by an ODI captaincy sacking.
You don’t get any of that from his walk. He looks confident, focused, on a mission.
Beside him is Trevor Bayliss. He looks scruffy, is walking with one hand in his pocket, seems to have the knees of an aged pro. His tracksuit seems too big, and somehow already well worn. He can barely catch up with Cook, as he tries to talk to him about something, he looks like a policy wonk trying to talk to a statesman.
If Cook listens, it doesn’t show.
He stares and strides. With purpose. He has a job to do.
There are players who think about their games to a terrifying near-psycho level. There are others who play. Alastair Cook trains.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Cook couldn’t play spin as well as he liked, so he booked endless sessions with the Merlyn bowling machine facing spin. He kept facing it until he conquered it.
Cook in the slips at first was a waste of a human in the slips. He was like a gap dressed in whites. But he worked on it. And worked. Even after he was taken out of slips, almost every training session would have him taking more and more catches in slips practice. He refused to believe he couldn’t conquer it, and eventually he did.
When Cook’s batting reached a low coming into 2015, Cook went and found Gary Palmer. A batting coach known as the man who fixes technical flaws. Cook’s technique was a mess, and his head was much the same. But he threw himself into training sessions with Palmer until he improved.
There was a time when Cook’s captaincy was essentially batting, and walking out on the field. It was dour, harder to watch than even his scratchiest innings. But as his team changed, he stopped being Andrew Strauss-lite, started to grow into the job. He had “funky” third slips in helmets, he attacked more and he changed when he had too.
Alastair Cook is a man who works hard on his craft.
Bedford School was founded in 1552, by Royal Charter. Its main school building is a massive, red, gothic revival, listed building that towers above the cricket ground. A cricket ground so professional that it hosts List A games, minor county games and 2nd XI county fixtures. It has proper change rooms and viewing balconies.
People of note come from Bedford school. Guglielmo Marconi went on to win a Nobel prize for his work in Physics. Harold Abrahams won an Olympic sprinting gold medal. And Paddy Ashdown who was the first leaders of the Liberal Democrats.
They had good cricketers before Cook, they even had Derek Randall as their sports master. But Cook rewrote all their records. Even before he played for the 1st XI, he had made a score of 100 against them, as a 14-year-old filling in for an MCC XI.
It was in Bedford, the ancient special institution with the ghosts of great men around him, that they told Cook he would captain England one day.
From that moment onwards, Alastair Cook was future England captain Alastair Cook. That was his role in life.
There was a time when if you stumbled across the Barnes seconds or thirds in the Middlesex league, you’d have seen a tall elegant right-hander. Someone who had so much time to play the ball, who timed it like you do in dreams, who could play all the shots.
If you saw this guy on the way to the change rooms, you’d see his cricket bag. It was official English kit. This tall elegant player was Adrian Cook, brother of. And if they were ever in side by side nets, there is no doubt you’d be just as impressed, if not even more so, by Adrian than Alastair.
Alastair Cook played Under-15 cricket for England. In the same side were James Hildreth and Samit Patel. In county cricket, Hildreth is like David Gower, he bats on rails he’s so smooth. Then there is Patel, a stunning mix of bravado and shots, he forces you to admire him. There is no doubt that these are the two boys you would remember from the Under-15 team. The mature kid with the decent pull and surprising discipline wouldn’t stand out as much.
By Under-19s, Patel was captain under the coaching of Paul Farbrace. But when Andy Pick came in, Cook was made captain to lighten the load on the star Patel. In the Under-19 World Cup, Cook made two hundreds but still 120 runs less than Shikhar Dhawan, at a far slower rate. Even in Cook’s team, as he made runs, there was the bravado of Patel, the big hitting of Luke Wright and the slashing beauty of Steve Davies.
There was also Ravi Bopara, with England Under-19s and at Essex as well. There are few batsmen who make batting look as easy as Bopara. There are few batsmen you’d rather watch.
All these players, natural talents, were around Cook. His brother, Hildreth, Patel, Dhawan, Davies and Bopara. It’s been over ten years since that Under-19 World Cup, 15 since those Under-15 games and two decades since the Cook boys played in their garden. All that natural talent has only earned three of the others Test places, and a tally of 1842 runs. Alastair Cook has over 9000.
He has worked for every one of them.
He will leave the ball. Full balls bunted to point. The forward defence where it almost looks like he is playing from behind his pad. He’ll wait, potentially all day, to cut. Back-foot defensive drops on the leg side. He’ll force, or squeeze, through point. He’ll score every run off his pads if he has to. He’ll leave a whole lot more. The ball will drop into the gap at cover, that he barely ever pierces, for a single. Mid-on and mid-off will get cold hands. He’ll guide. And nudge. There will be a sweep. And, until he pulls, there won’t be a single shot that many in the crowd won’t think they can play.
On his best day, this is the Alastair Cook checklist.
India 2006. England called three players into their squad. James Anderson, Alastair Cook and Owais Shah. Of the three, Cook is, as ever, the least naturally talented, the one you want to watch the least.
England’s top order was made of three other men. Marcus Trescothick was an English fan favourite. Coming out of an era when English batsmen were usually victims, he stood and bashed. And point boundaries seemed to whimper at the thought of him. He was also an Ashes 2005 hero.
His opening partner was Andrew Strauss, a potential captain, the wing commander, a stylish batsman and another 2005 hero. Behind them was Michael Vaughan, prettier than either, runs flowed when in good form, and the most revered England captain in decades. That is a pretty strong top three.
But this England three had some issues. Strauss had form issues, Vaughan had knee issues and Trescothick had health issues. When Trescothick pulled out of the tour of India, it was Cook who came straight into the team for him. And made fifty and a hundred in his first Test.
When Vaughan was injured, Cook replaced him at three for his next few Tests. Had they all been fit, and in form, Cook might have never have taken his place in the side. But Cook did get opportunities, and he took them every time. There were bigger names with bigger talents, but there had always been.
Perhaps had Trescotchick got himself right, Cook would have struggled to unsettle them. But, with Cook, you always feel he would have found a way. Perhaps he would have turn himself into a solid No. 4, or a wicketkeeper, or a left-arm swing bowler. Whatever it took.
Instead he just made a lot of runs, and it was those early runs where he laid his platform for his future job.
Cook was the youngest Englishman to 1500 runs. To 2000 runs, 3000, 4000, 5000. Second batsman to score 1000 runs in his maiden calendar year. Scored four centuries before he was 22, as did Bradman. He and Strauss went beyond Hobbs and Sutcliffe’s opening runs record for England. Most time spent batting in a five-Test series. Youngest human being to 7000 Test runs. Most Test centuries for England. Youngest human being to 8000 Test runs. Most Test runs for England. Youngest player worldwide to 9000 Test runs.
They say Cook can get obsessed with numbers, but numbers like that breed obsession. His performance reviews may not always be glowing, but he punches in every day, works hard, and does his absolute best. That adds up after a while.
Ian Bell came into the England team before Cook. The skill is there dripping off him at every shot, even during the play and misses. But Bell was never a leader, not for England. Even when he became vice-captain it was only briefly, and he was never seen as a potential captain of England.
In 2009, Alastair Cook became vice-captain, his average at the time had dipped to a career low of 40. Bell would be out of the England team on the same tour. There was simply no one else around.
There was just the future England captain Alastair Cook.
England are midway through their warm-up football game. Cook is playing on the team with the yellow vests, as usual he has his cap on backwards. He doesn’t quite seem to get the game, when he is in possession, it’s clumsy and he doesn’t have touch or vision. He looks like a footballing Gomer Pyle. He’s also not a natural mover, he moves a bit like he is animatronic.
Adam Lyth is a natural. He sees the game ahead of time, gets to the ball beautifully, soft touch, he’s quick and decisive, controls the ball beautifully when it’s at his feet, is almost always in the right position for the next pass.
At one stage in the game, Cook finds himself defending Lyth. There should be no contest, in football terms, Cook is little more than a cone for Lyth to go around. But Cook just hangs in there, and when Lyth tries an aggressive feint around him, Cook just gets in the way, somehow, despite his general awkwardness, and he deflects the ball just enough to stop an easy goal.
There was a protester outside The Oval on day one of the fifth Ashes Test. She was there to protest Alastair Cook’s deer hunting. Outside of cricket, it is Cook’s biggest controversy. Much like his batting, he gives away little about his life.
While his team-mates tweet out their private life, and which South African Portuguese-inspired chicken restaurant they are at, Cook isn’t even on Twitter.
Cricket-wise, the biggest controversy Cook has been part of was Kevin Pietersen’s axing. And he had been the person in part responsible for bringing Pietersen back. But the ECB’s bumbled attempt to make KP into the devil and Cook as the saviour never quite went down perfectly. Perhaps, had Cook been making runs, he could have done what he always did, and batted his way out of it.
Instead an embarrassing series loss, partly brought on by a defensive declaration, to Sri Lanka, and then a loss at Lord’s to India, and it was almost enough for Cook. He said later that it was his wife who talked him out of it.
Perhaps that is what Giles Clarke, then the ECB chairman, had meant when he said that Cook and his family are very much the sort of people he England captain and his family should be. The problem is that it sounded like coded public school talk.
Despite his Bedford schooling (on a scholarship for his singing), Cook is more lower-middle class, than Clarke, who is posh and powerful. But Cook is the very representation of middle class stiff upper lip. He grew up with a yard to play in, went to boarding school and had vacations in the snow. That upbringing, plus tons of runs, and the fact he was a top-order batsman, seemed to be prefect for captaincy, like he was born for it. Born into it.
But, again this year, he has said he almost gave it up.
The interesting thing is that twice he has almost given it up, never has he given it up. And the reason might be silly. From 14 to 27 he was the future England captain. From 27 to 30, the England captain. If he were to give it up now, he will be the former England captain for life.
He doesn’t appear likely to run the ICC. Or fund a series of digital start-ups. He’s not a natural in front of a microphone. And, with a limited education, most other professions would be tough to move into. So why would he give up this job, the job he has groomed himself for, overachieved to get, and had big triumphs in, when he is only 30?
Most of his life he will be former England captain Alastair Cook. Why rush into that role?
There is a conversation in the movie Gladiator between Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, where Commodus remembers a list of chief virtues his father said he should have, and mentions that he has none of them. Cricket fans have a list of chief virtues in their star batsmen. They want cavalier attitude, style, the ability to play all the shots, and charisma.
Cook has none. But he has other virtues.
Talk to a player who has got the very most out of themselves and suggest they have done well despite a lack of natural talent, and you’ll get the look. That look of utter disgust, and pure tiredness. Concentrate for an hour, a day, a Test or a whole series without a single mistake. Is it not talent to constantly reshape your game to overcome the latest flaw. Can we not sit and marvel at a man who refuses to play shots that must have come naturally to him as a boy just to survive Test cricket?
In baseball, scouts were often sucked in looking for that perfect swing. Alastair Cook does not have the perfect swing of the bat; he has an imperfect nudge of the ball that, through his other undervalued superpowers, he can do for days on end.
Cook has chief virtues, they are not aesthetically pleasing or excitingly cavalier, but few players in the history of the game have his natural talent, or the numbers he has.
Cook’s numbers and wins have made more people love him, but that unconditional head-over-heels love that someone like David Gower has – it’s hard to see Cook ever getting that.
Cook had just left the player’s viewing area to walk into the change room when he became Test cricket’s leading active run-scorer (assuming Shivnarine Chanderpaul has batted his last). Kumar Sangakkara had just been dismissed for the second time at P Sara. All Cook was doing was walking, a 30-year-old player, a young veteran, the highest scoring man left in cricket.
Michael Clarke is driven by legacy. Graeme Smith by being in charge. Brendon McCullum by passion.
But what drives Alastair Cook as a captain? There seems to be nothing obvious. Nothing that you can see just by looking at him play. If there is something, beyond the normal things of enjoying a win, we might never truly find it.
But the truth might be in the job. For Cook, this job is a big deal. More so than it is for other captains. For Cook, the job is more important than the leadership, than the legend status, than his hunger for it.
In cricket he is England’s highest man. There is a status in that. He hasn’t just fulfilled a childhood prophecy, he has achieved everything a man like him can. It’s his American presidency, his number one hit, his raison d’etre.
Had he not become captain, he might never have been complete.
When England won in India under Cook, it was Cook who took the first ball of the England innings. A statement. In Ahmedabad, he made 176 when following on. It was one of only two scores above 50 they managed in a losing Test match. In Mumbai he scored a first-innings hundred and then was not out in England’s successful chase. In Kolkata he was run out for 190; at that time he’d scored more than half England’s total. They would go on to win that as well. Cook would average 80.28 in the series but, more importantly, England would beat India, in India.
This series Adam Lyth has taken the first ball of every innings for England. Cook has played two decent innings, both times in losing causes. His captaincy has been different than India too. He no longer sits back and allows the cricket to happen. He has tried things, pushed hard when required, and not automatically defaulted to boundary riders. But outside of Cardiff, England have won this series without the need of Cook attacking, they have done it because Australia can’t bat before lunch in English conditions.
These are Cook’s greatest wins as captain. One was on his back, the other under his watch.
When the last wicket fell, Cook was sitting with the analysts in his training kit, he grimaced, and shrugged his shoulders, like he’d been beaten by a decent ball. He then started to walk towards the door, when Ottis Gibson stopped to shake his hand. Soon the whole team was shaking his hand. Everyone in that change room wanted to stop and congratulate the captain, and he acknowledged all of them in an understated way, even when Stuart Broad hugged him.
Then Cook led his team down the stairs. Noticing that Clarke was getting a guard of honour from his team, Cook stood back and waited, he was in no rush. Then the players all shook hands and Cook and the team changed back into their whites. Cook’s pristine whites.
Cook led the team out one last time for the ceremony. He smiled, but was still focused, and had a few more interviews to nudge around the corner, all of which he did effectively.
Then he found himself at the front of the photo celebrations, the other players poured champagne on him, but he just held the urn and smiled for the cameras.
It was the first time his whites weren’t pristine.
Even his walk changed. It wasn’t focused, or goal oriented. He wasn’t really going anywhere. Just wandering. Dawdling. Smiling. Laughing. He took a flag of St George and draped it around his champagne-drenched, Ashes-winning shoulders.
His last day at the office this summer. Job done.