Alastair Cook: So where did it all go spectacularly right?
Ashes hero opens up on darts, helping out on the farm, the secret of batting and whether he expects to be the next England cricket captain... David Lloyd meets Alastair Cook
Sunday 10 April 2011
The receptionist at the office where England's No 1 Ashes hero had spent several hours doing a photo-shoot looked puzzled. "I'm here to see Alastair Cook." No flash of recognition. "Alastair Cook, the cricketer?"
With quick efficiency and a hint of embarrassment, she soon found someone who knew precisely where our winter run-machine was to be located, then offered an unnecessary apology. "I'm sorry, I'm not really into cricket." And tempting though it was to respond with something along the lines of "What, not even when we were walloping Australia?", a different thought sprang to the front of the queue.
Imagine if Wayne Rooney had scored a hat-trick against Brazil. Then another one. Then another. The chances of even seeing him behind a battalion of bodyguards, agents, marketing executives and hangers-on would have been minute, never mind chatting to him about anything that took your fancy with no one else listening in.
Cricket may have changed, but it hasn't changed that much. And neither has a 26-year-old lad who went to Australia last November with many of us questioning whether he should be in the side and returned home as England's most successful batsman in an Ashes series for 82 years.
Cook would happily have spent most of this interview talking about darts, a game which he seems to know from Eric Bristow through to Phil Taylor and one he plays when on tour or at home. But on this occasion it seemed only right to drag his thoughts away from 180s and on to 235, 148 and 189 – the scores he made in Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney last winter.
Surely all those big numbers add up to a life-changing experience? "No," says Cook with a smile and a look of relief. "I've probably been recognised a few more times in the street or when out shopping, but that is about it. The only thing I really noticed, and what hit home after getting back from Australia, was how excited and pleased peopleback here were with the team's success in the Ashes. We knew the support over there was amazing but you don't really appreciate what is happening at home, so it was wonderful to listen to all those stories about people staying up all night over Christmas and New Year to follow our progress."
Cook has had a bit more time at home than he would have liked. While most of his Test colleagues played a one-day series Down Under and then went straight into the World Cup, the opening batsman returned to a somewhat less glamorous routine: batting in the indoor nets at Chelmsford, training, promoting Samsung's latest notebook baby and helping out on the farm owned by his girlfriend's family. Now, Cook would not like anyone to think he doesn't cherish time with his lady, Alice. Or that assisting ewes through the lambing season is not a thoroughly worthwhile occupation. It is just that cricketers of Cook's class want to play cricket – especially when they are in the form of their life.
"I understand the reasons why I wasn't in the World Cup squad," he says. "The selectors had their eye on what they wanted for that competition and I wasn't part of the plan. The only thing that frustrated me was that I was in really good form and I would have loved the chance to keep it going – to have ridden that wave a bit further. I've had a good time at home, but I haven't done anything special. Well, not special as in what you can do on a cricket field as a cricketer."
Cook was quite special even before he went to Australia last November. True, there had been a blip sufficiently worrying for a lot of good judges to suggest he was playing for his place on tour when he walked out to bat against Pakistan at The Oval last August. But that confidence-reviving century in south London was his 13th in 59 Tests. Now he has 16, including his Brisbane double-hundred, in 65 appearances. So where did it all go spectacularly right in 2010?
"The Oval hundred was really important because it kept my place in the team, even if it didn't remove all the doubts that some people had," says Cook. "For me it was the first time I had been really under pressure for my place. And it was the first time the hundred wasn't just about the team. It was just that little bit about me saving my skin when just about everyone was saying it was my last chance to do so.
"No one in the England set-up had said that, but then they're not going to, are they? They're not going to waltz up and say you're one innings away from being dropped. But when you've scored 50-odd runs in your last seven knocks, you know if you keep doing that you're not going to be playing."
Still, just how did he come to play so exceptionally well for hour after hour, day after day, in Australia?
"I don't know."
What? You can't say that. We're searching for the secret of batting here, which is perhaps second only in importance to the secret of life. "I'm sorry, but I don't really know what made the difference because technically I didn't change much.
"We all know that sometimes you get lucky in life. I've always had the hunger to score runs and I've always made the most of what I've got. So when what I've got was working as well as it did over there, I wasn't going to let it go.
"It wasn't 'being in the zone', it was just me playing as well as I can. It felt quite easy – and very nice! People said to me about 'being in the zone'. But I remember being nervous through every innings because I didn't want to get out."
Soon enough, people will wonder if he can do it again. Next month – the first Test of the summer, against Sri Lanka – it will be a case of: follow that, Cook, if you can.
"I haven't thought about that too much yet," he says. "It never pays to look too far ahead. People know you are not going to score 700 runs every series, but I can't think about that. What I have to look at is what I can do tomorrow and the day after that to keep improving.
"So long as I keep doing little things well – training, practising, learning – then the batting in a match will look after itself. But if I start worrying just about the end product, then things could go wrong. I need to keep it simple, which is what I did in Australia.
"It's not going to be plain sailing. There will be ups and downs. But if doing what I did against a really good side in Australia doesn't give me confidence, then nothing will."
It is not only Cook, of course, who will be urged to carry on where he left off last winter. Having retained the Ashes, England's Test team must push on to their target of being No 1 in the world. And home series against Sri Lanka and India will be no walk in the park.
"It's no good us beating Australia and then failing to beat Sri Lanka and India on our own grounds," agrees Cook. "The standard we set in Australia is repeatable, but only if we keep working hard."
That message was delivered like a leader in waiting, which brings us to another big talking point – one that draws the only response which vice-captain Cook probably rehears-ed even before people started suggesting that the captain, Andrew Strauss, may stand down from the one-day job in the wake of England's latest World Cup failure.
"I really enjoyed being captain in Bangladesh last year," says Cook. "But if I never get the opportunity again and they decide whenever Straussy goes that someone else would do it better, then I will be disappointed but fine about it.
"I don't crave to be captain. If I was offered the chance, though, I'd like to do it, because captaining England is incredible and I would like to see how good I could be. Also, the pride Straussy must feel when his ideas come off and the team is successful must be amazing."
Whatever happens to Cook and England, nothing – not even a predictably early World Cup exit – can take away the sheer joy and sense of satisfaction felt by them after the Ashes series was won 3-1.
"My most vivid memory is sitting in the middle of the Sydney Cricket Ground, having a beer and a chat with the whole tour party at the end of the series," says Cook. "The stadium was empty and we just chatted – some of it serious, some of it jokey. I expect people will remind me down the years about my batting and how well we played, but that time together will remain particularly special."
Six of the best: Record-breaking run machine
1. The only England batsman to score seven Test centuries before his 23rd birthday, he is also the youngest to reach 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 and 5,000 Test runs.
2. His 383 runs (235 not out in Brisbane followed by 148 at Adelaide) and 1,058 minutes unbeaten at the crease are both England records.
3. His undefeated partnership of 329 with Jonathan Trott (135) in Brisbane is England's highest for any wicket in Australia. The opener's 235 is the highest Test score by any batsman at the Gabba.
4. At 26, he is the second-youngest batsman (after Sachin Tendulkar) to score 5,000 Test runs, a landmark he reached during his knock of 189 in Sydney in January.
5. His total of 766 runs in an Ashes series has been bettered by only one England batsman – Wally Hammond, who scored 905 in 1928-29.
6. With Andrew Strauss, he holds the record for England's highest first-wicket partnership against Australia at Lord's (196 in 2009).
Rankin has partnered Samsung and Intel to launch the Series 9 notebook with 2nd generation Intel® Core™ i5 Processor with a collection of technology-inspired photographs featuring Alastair Cook. The notebook is now available at Harrods and major retailers across the UK
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