Alex Massie

The functional, quiet nobility of Alastair Cook

The functional, quiet nobility of Alastair Cook
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No-one ever bought shares in Alastair Cook because they were sexy. No man has made so many runs with so little flash. But no Englishman has made as many as 12,472 runs in test cricket either. If the quantity of test cricket played these days helped Cook build his own mountain of runs, it remains the case that no-one, from any other country, has ever made as many test runs while carrying the burden of opening the innings.

The opener is a breed apart. Few people want to open; not all those charged with doing so enjoy it. The position requires a very particular set of skills. There is never a hiding place. You bat, as Mike Atherton observed when Cook announced his retirement, when the bowlers are at their freshest and the ball at its hardest. You are the only people who could conceivably be on the field for the entire 30 hours a test match might last. There is little to no opportunity to recharge your batteries and rest during a match. As soon as you are done fielding, you are batting again. Failure can bring time for recrimination but there is never any real chance of relaxation while the match is in progress.

And with it all comes heavy responsibility. You set the tone, the pattern, the mood of the innings. Your success makes it easier for your team-mates; your failures make their task so very much harder. You are the man upon the wall, protecting your colleagues. The middle order can enjoy the spring and summer; it is almost always winter for openers. That takes a toll.

And when you captain your country nearly 60 times, the accumulated burden of opening and skippering can become almost oppressive. That was Cook’s lot, however, and so it fell to him to do his duty. If he was not the most imaginative captain, he was also one who plainly inspired more loyalty and affection amongst his team-mates than most. (There was, of course, one outsized exception to this.)

Only four men have, so far, made more test match runs than Alastair Cook. Only 13 have made more than 10,000 test runs and Cook and Sunil Gavaskar are the only openers in that club. Indeed, of the top 30 run scorers in history, just six habitually opened the batting. That is one way of putting Alastair Cook’s achievements into context.

Another is to note that of those 30 batsmen few did more with less. It is no slight on Cook at all to suggest he squeezed every last run from his naturally-given talent. It was not often easy and even less frequently pretty but the struggle conferred a certain nobility upon Cook’s career even if he himself would be too modest, too bashful, too restrained to think of it in those terms. No-one, certainly, has ever scored more runs nudging the ball off his hip.

Even Cook’s best shots were, if we are honest, more functional than they were things of formal beauty. His cut, so often so effective, was as much a chop as a cut and while he was a tremendous puller of the ball, quick to pick length as all great batsmen must be, his pull lacked the drama of, say, Gordon Greenidge’s or the rifle-crack explosiveness of Ricky Ponting’s. His driving was, usually, only provisional; his prods down the ground often vaguely apologetic.

But where Cook excelled, more perhaps than any England player since Sir Geoffrey Boycott, was in mastering the mental struggle. And your own brain, as all cricketers know, is your most formidable opponent. Cook knew his limitations and used them to his advantage. He batted, at his best, with a command that approach faultlessness. He might paint in a limited palette but the pictures he produced were all the more strangely compelling for it. Restraint was his friend.

When everything was out of sync - as it sometimes was, notably in 2013 and 2014 when Cook averaged in the low 30s and made just two centuries in 40 innings - it could be almost painful to watch. Feet refused to do what they were asked; hands had a mind of their own. It could look as though Cook had barely held a bat before, let alone been a master of his art.

The remedy, as always, was a retreat to first principles and hours upon hours of dogged work. Kinks would be worked out and flattened out by hours in the nets until such time as Cook’s head - literally and figuratively - was back in its proper place. Then the rhythm might be felt again and the runs might begin to flow once more.

Unusually, for an Englishman anyway, he was just as home overseas as he was in England. He saved his best, or at least most meaningful, runs for matches in India and Australia. In 2010-11 down under, his bat seemed impassable. 766 runs, including three centuries, at an average of 127 provided the platform for a rare - and unusually crushing - Ashes triumph on Australian soil. In those moments you could forgive the opposition for looking at Cook and wondering how he did it. For there seemed nothing special about it; Cook just went on and on and on. But that, of course, was the point: Cook’s quiet efficiency was his strength and that efficiency in turn rested upon his mastery of his himself. Leave, nudge, pull, nurdle, cut, leave again.

Even when Cook was England’s most important batsman - or, at any rate the wicket the opposition knew was most important - he was rarely the XI’s main attraction. That would be Kevin Pietersen or, latterly, Joe Root. He was the setter of scenes, the builder of platforms, the man whose exploits could too easily be too much taken for granted. The one upon whom everyone else relied.

There was a lack of fuss about Cook too that made him admirable. He was always a workhorse and never a show pony and this too gave his career a kind of nobility. He was not a metropolitan batsmen. He belonged, instead, to a quieter tradition. He was, if you will, Stanley Baker not Richard Burton. There to serve. There is no 'I' in team but there is a 'Me', not that you would have guessed that from Cook's career. He did his bit.

None of this should be reckoned faint praise. I do not know if many people loved Alastair Cook’s batting the way they loved David Gower’s or VVS Laxman’s or Brian Lara’s. But as the years passed and the pile of runs grew, he more than earned the deep sense of fondness so evident at the Oval this week. He has done English cricket so much service and we - all of us - know it.

And what a way to go! A half century in the first innings left one wondering if that might be it; afraid that Cook’s last shot at the send-off he has more than deserved had eluded him. We should have known better. His century today provided the perfect ending.

Except, of course, it is not quite over yet. There remains a test match to be won. Cook has, as so often before, set the platform for that victory. He earned the right to go at a time of his own choosing and has been sensible enough to depart before he became an anchor on the team. The old unflappable solidity was still there, just more intermittently than before. There were still big scores for Cook but these feasts were interspersed with prolonged periods of life on short rations.

His departure, though, leaves a significant hole. Cook has been the pillar around which England’s bating order has been built for more than a decade. It is not obvious to whom that baton, that burden, will now pass. He will be a tough act to follow.

To open is to serve and no-one in the recent story of English cricket has better demonstrated that than Alastair Nathan Cook. He did it his way and he earned every last drop of his success. So long Chef, top cooking.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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