I first became aware of Alastair Cook in the Ashes summer of 2005 when he was named the Young Cricketer of the Year by the cricket writers’ association following some epic performances in the county game, not least taking a double hundred off the touring Australians. The assembled brains on our table, including Mike Brearley, agreed that the boy would go far. And how…
The greatest of current English players, Cook — happily married and impeccably polite — set a perfect example. There were no nightclub brawls, no pedalos, not even any light aircraft. Blessed with incredible stamina and single-mindedness, he knew what worked and kept at it. He wouldn’t clear the bars when he went out to bat, but without his hard work the showier players would not have had a platform to build on. He is still young, the Chef — only 33 — and his mentor Graham Gooch scored a shedload of Test runs after the age of 34. But he seems to have felt the well was running dry, or as he put it himself: ‘There is nothing left in the tank.’
So many runs, of course — more than any other Englishman will score in our time — but of all his innings, one special favourite of mine was his extraordinary 263 against Pakistan in the unwavering heat of Abu Dhabi: the perfect place for ‘the man who can’t sweat’ to ply his trade. The innings lasted 836 minutes, just a touch under 14 hours, and to judge by the pictures Cook looked as immaculately turned-out when he left the field as when he walked out to bat. Think of that: total concentration hour after hour. These days Test cricketers get lavishly praised if they can hold things together for a couple of hours — like Ben Stokes who knuckled down for more than 100 balls for his 30 in Southampton last week. Well done, Ben; but it’s not in the same league as the Chef.
Will Cook be the last of the great England openers? You suspect so. Nobody has the patience any more, or the mental strength. Haseeb Hameed (remember him?), a former opening Test partner of Cook’s and once tipped as the new Boycott, can’t buy a run these days and has been left out of the Lancashire squad. What I would like to see is the BBC putting Cook up posthumously, as it were, as a candidate for the Sports Personality of the Year. This would not only be a fitting tribute but a slight correction to the appalling lack of respect that the programme has shown to men’s cricket in recent years.
Now, whether there’s anything in the tank or not, Cook will get an immense and wholly deserved send-off at the Oval. It might even put Henry Blofeld’s pastel-hued retirement lap of honour at Lord’s into the shade. But isn’t there a tiny bit of us that yearns for the quiet dignity of Michael Atherton’s farewell in 2001? He was dismissed cheaply as England followed on in the final Ashes Test, and the crowd, suspecting it might be his last game, applauded as he left the field. Atherton turned and raised his bat to all parts of the ground: he had not said anything, but this was his last moment in international cricket. Then he disappeared into the pavilion.
I’m not a huge fan of sportsmen announcing they are retiring from international matches. If you get the privilege of playing for your country, it’s your country that decides when it doesn’t need you any more, rather than the other way round. In football, Gary Cahill and Jamie Vardy have now both joined the ranks of those who can claim it was their decision to go, when they mightn’t have been be picked anyway. And if there isn’t anything left in the Chef’s tank, the Oval might have been a good chance to blood a new opener. Rory Burns, for example. In a dead rubber. On his home ground. Just saying…