Roger Alton

Among the centurions

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You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as Joni Mitchell used to whiffle way back when. And on cricket, as on so much else, the flaxen-haired loopster of Laurel Canyon was right. My friend Fiona took her three boys to the cricket at the Oval last Thursday and a fine time was had by all. Plus they saw an English batsman score a century, which is always a treat, though it was in this case a very false dawn. In decades to come, though, Fiona’s lads will be able to go all rheumy-eyed and describe how they saw England’s finest batsman score a ton against the Springboks, just as my dad did when he talked about Walter Hammond or Len Hutton.

It is my belief that that is how we will look back on the career of Alastair Cook. Consider the stats: he’s joint fifth in the list of England’s all-time Test century makers, with 20, two behind the leaders, Boycott, Cowdrey and Hammond. And Cook is still only 27; Hammond was 44 when he stopped playing. We English are of course still only in the foothills: Jacques Kallis, one of the trio of South African butchers who minced England this week, has 43 Test centuries, and Tendulkar 51. But it is hard to imagine that Cook won’t end up with around 30.

I went to the Oval on Saturday and it was an exercise in uncompetitiveness. Very little happened: Hashim Amla and Kallis looked like they could bat till the end of the Olympics and beyond, there was an annoying Mexican wave, and much fun was had building snakes out of empty plastic glasses. It was low-level but remorseless bullying, like watching the new boy being pushed round the playground by a hard-boiled sixth-former.

What the weekend did have was some remarkable beardmanship featuring the amiable and sporting Amla, whose modest, teetotal Muslim lifestyle gives him near-saintly status among his more, er, hard-living colleagues. He’s got the best beard in sport, though there are rivals from the past, notably Socrates, the great smoker and footballer, rather than the philosopher, who never really made much of an impression on Graeco-Roman wrestling; W.G. Grace, who for sheer length is one of few people who can give Amla a contest; England’s front row forward Dan Cole, who is increasingly channelling the full Henry VIII; and bringing up the rear, which she didn’t do often on the track, the Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvilová.

Talking of the track, here are some things I would like to see happen at the Olympics: a gold for Wiggo in the time trials next week, not that he needs it, with three Olympic golds already. The Tour was one of our greatest ever achievements, thousands of miles in the heat of summer and with sideburns like that. I hope the beauteous Victoria Pendleton, always a joy in or out of a pair of shorts, will not have a Steve Redgrave moment and tear up her plan to retire after the Games.

It would be good if Usain Bolt doesn’t have it all his own way. He’s the greatest, but out of form — a perfect set-up for a tight final. Let’s hope Yohan Blake pushes him. The women’s football has become a tired joke for people who want to sneer at the Games: so wouldn’t it be nice if the stadiums weren’t empty and the matches were brilliant? Shame on anybody who doesn’t want Rebecca Adlington to win: she’s living, smiling proof that sporting glory doesn’t have to come with vast arrogance. Cristiano Ronaldo, you could pick up a few tips here.

And finally, get out on the river and wish for gold for Katherine Grainger in the double sculls with Anna Watkins next Friday. She’s picked up silver at the last three Olympics, and has won all her 21 races with Watkins, so it’s pretty much a banker. By the way she’s doing a PhD in her spare time — in homicide. You go, girl.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.