Something just wasn’t right at Southampton. On the first day Alastair Cook, who for so long has embodied focus and stoicism at the crease, poked at a wide ball outside off stump and guided it straight to third slip. It was a tired shot; it was a shot that said “I don’t have the mental strength for this anymore”. And who can blame him. Cook has played 160 test matches for England. And he’s never been injured. Chef has been in the kitchen non-stop for 12 long years. No wonder he finally wants out.
I’ve always had somewhat conflicting feelings about Cook – emotions that have evolved over time. When he first emerged on the scene I actually wondered what the hype was about. I’d heard so much about this wonder-kid from Essex that I was actually a little underwhelmed when I saw him play for England U19. He scored runs but they weren’t great to watch, and I wondered whether he had the technique for test cricket. 12,254 test runs later I think I might have my answer to that one.
Cook first came to public prominence when he made a big hundred against Australia for Essex on that famous 2005 tour. Once again the hype reached Graeme Hick proportions. And when he made a century in India on his test debut, people were already crowning him as the next great England batsman. The difference between Alastair and Graeme, of course, was that Alastair actually lived up to expectations – although he never went past Tendulkar’s aggregate. He had an ounce of Hick’s talent, but Hick only had an ounce of Chef’s steel.
They say that everyone is uber-talented at test level, and that mental strength is what divides the best from the also-rans. Cook is living proof that this old adage holds water. He was never the prettiest – although the ladies certainly found him easy on the eye – but he was usually bloody effective. What’s more, he cuts and pulls imperiously – one of the best I’ve seen – despite never looking totally comfortable either on the drive or, crucially, in defence against top class seam bowling.
No doubt many will write in the coming days that Cook is England’s best ever opener. This doesn’t bear scrutiny in my opinion. A forensic examination of Chef’s career shows that he was at his best on flat pitches against less than world class bowling. Sorry to burst any bubbles here. Of course there was the odd innings when he did very well – Durban in 2009 immediately springs to mind, not to mention Perth in 2006/07 – but most of his runs came when the bowling was less than top drawer.
I wrote an article a couple of years ago which demonstrated that only 5 of Cooks 32 test centuries came against attacks containing two bowlers who averaged less than 30 at the time. And most of those came in either very high scoring games or series in which he otherwise struggled. And his Ashes record (if one takes that wonderful 2010 tour out of the equation) was less than stellar. Nobody’s perfect I guess.
I must admit, however, that I’ve always written about Cook from the perspective that he was over-hyped. And things that are over-hyped annoy me. Therefore, I’ve never been completely objective when writing about Chef. Had I looked at his career through an objective lens – something I’ve been able to do more effectively in recent years – then I certainly would have been more generous looking back. After all, Alastair’s longevity, and his ability to dig in and make big scores when his teammates failed (Melbourne last winter being the prime example) is incredibly impressive. His retirement will leave a massive hole in the England team. What’s more, I’m extremely sad to see him go – although I feel the timing is probably right.
My feelings about Cook shifted significantly for the first time back in 2013 after the Ashes debacle. Many people blamed Alastair for the Kevin Pietersen debacle, including my former co-editor Maxie, but after careful thought I eventually saw Cook as something as a victim in the saga too; therefore I went from seeing him as something of slightly nauseating ECB choirboy into a somewhat tragic figure. As soon as Giles Clarke sang his praises as someone from the right kind of family, there was suddenly a huge target on Alastair’s back. And he became a symbol of resentment. None of this, of course, was Cook’s fault.
Some say the skipper should have gone out on a limb to save Pietersen, but after losing the Ashes 0-5 he simply didn’t have the power to do so. He was lucky to keep his job. And why should he go out of his way to protect a player he didn’t see eye to eye with? There was obviously some animosity there. It will be interesting to see what Cook’s book reveals. I suspect he’ll claim that he felt somewhat powerless and incredibly frustrated that he was unable to give his side of the story in public.
My feelings about Cook metamorphosed more recently as white ball cricket has become ubiquitous and, in my opinion at least, dangerous. As the ECB announced its plans for a city-based T20, which soon became Harrison’s Harebrained Hundred, I suddenly realised that Alastair had become something on an anachronism in the modern game. Here he was, in an era of increasing run rates and ever-increasing hype (yes it’s that word again), representing England as an old fashioned opener. It dawned on me that we should cherish Alastair while we still had him. After all, we might never see another stodgy opener play for England again – especially as test cricket itself is under siege these days.*
So how will I remember Cook? I think what sticks out for me is his performance in India back in 2012. He had just been appointed captain and he batted phenomenally well. The extra responsibility on his shoulders didn’t faze him (like it has affected Joe Root for example), and he led England to a famous series win. I’ll always remember Cook’s amazing application in that series, not to mention his awesome stamina. Pietersen stole the headlines at Mumbai, and Swann bowled beautifully too, but Alastair held the team together fantastically well. He was the hero of that tour in my opinion.
I often wondered what it would be like to write a ‘farewell Alastair’ article. His career was often under the microscope, as he often endured horrible patches of bad form, but I always assumed he’d go on and on forever. It’s quite surreal that I’m finally writing this article. I don’t really know what to say!
It’s all a bit emotional because in some ways the Alastair Cook story is The Full Toss. Maxie and I started blogging not long after his international career began, and we’ve often focused on his ups and downs. I recall an early iteration of TFT (circa 2008) that had a picture of Cook losing his off-stump in the sidebar. The caption, written by Maxie of course, read “what does he have to do to get dropped”? And now we know the answer. He never was. He just kept going until he’d had enough.
In some ways I think that says it all. Cook was the golden child. So he pissed some people off. But he was also understated, determined, always polite, and quintessentially English. And I think that his final test average of 45 (or just below that mark now) is probably a fair reflection of his abilities. He was a very good (but not truly ‘great’) opening batsman with a quirky technique but a brain I wish we could clone and insert into Stokes, Bairstow, Root, and all the other England players with twice his talent but half his resolve.
I will miss Alastair Cook greatly. And I’ll miss writing about him even more. His quirks, the dips in form, the controversies, his awkwardness in front of the camera, and even his limitations as a captain gave us so much to discuss. What on earth are we going to do without him?
* One thing I should have added here is that Cook has also expressed concerns about first class cricket, and implied that the creeping influence of white ball cricket is a worry. This puts him on the right side of the debate imho. I can’t recall too many other current England players expressing similar sentiments; therefore it’s wrong for some to portray Alastair as merely an ECB stooge. I think he might open up more about this topic once he retires.