THE ASHES

Alastair Cook: The first among equals

Alastair Cook is the best young batsman England has ever produced – and he has the figures to prove it. But openers never get an easy ride in the Ashes. He tells Stephen Brenkley why singing in a choir as a boy, and worming lambs on his girlfriend's farm between Tests, are the secrets of his success

Alastair Cook is 24 and has scored 3,287 Test runs. No England batsman has amassed so many so young and when he is 34, given a fair wind, Cook may well be the heaviest scorer of the lot. Ahead of Graham Gooch, Geoff Boycott, David Gower and, who knows, Kevin Pietersen.

It is testimony to the manner in which he has taken to Test cricket – to the manner born indeed – that when the England team is being discussed in the pub his name brooks no argument or debate. It is probably like that in the official selection room as well. Cook's name is automatic, as though it has always been there. Well, who else could open the batting?

That this remained so throughout last year and into this as he went 27 Test innings without scoring a hundred is further evidence that England know they have an opener for a generation. It was a peculiar period marked by the fact that Cook kept getting to 50 and then getting out. In its way, it was rather touching to see that he was vulnerable, that he was not

simply a run accumulating automaton. It is, nevertheless, comforting to all – selectors, coach, captain, team-mates, fans – that Cook has broken this cycle in time for the greatest series of all. In the rhododendron-clad Nevill ground, Tunbridge Wells, where cucumber sandwiches and a cup of the finest Darjeeling are to be expected at any moment, a setting as far removed from a Test against Australia as it is possible for one professional cricket match to be from another, Cook turns his attention to the Ashes, the capriciousness of form, his passion for cricket and his passion away from it.

"That last 12 months was the first time I had gone a year without scoring a hundred," he said. "Mental things turned into technical things and technical things turned into mental things. It became a bit of a vicious circle going round and round. I wasn't going home sitting there and fretting, I was still getting sixties and seventies, in that South Africa series last summer I got some runs without getting the rewards for them."

Eventually, he was to seem embattled. He insists that he did not fret but it kept happening. It became so predictable that special attention began to be paid when he reached his half-century, because soon he would get out.

"When it happened against New Zealand it was only six months," he says. "But then the summer came and I should have got one at The Oval and then another at Edgbaston and then I did it twice again in India. I got home at Christmas and I thought 'bloody hell…' Then I was starting to think, 'How much longer is this going to go on for?'"

Cook's run of form reached its nadir in Barbados in February. He had reached 80 fluently and then suddenly was beset by anxiety. His strokes were hurried and agitated, his feet failed to respond properly. He was out for 94.

"I had to be dragged off and, as I was, I thought I have got to do this all over again," he says. "It was desperation, no other word for it. They bowled well for 10 minutes and that was enough. Anybody is lying if they say they're not nervous in the nineties. Hundreds are what define a player."

Fortunately, there was a second innings and perhaps helped by the fact that the match was drifting peacefully to a draw to put it out of its flat-pitch, high-scoring misery, he broke the sequence. It was at once meaningless and meaningful. He scored another hundred, his ninth in all, in rather more different conditions than Barbados in Chester-le-Street in May. Thus he approaches the Ashes, the biggest challenge of his career so far, in good order.

Like many England cricketers before him, he was given a severe working over by Australia in his first encounter two winters ago in the 5-0 series mauling. Cook made a well-crafted hundred in Adelaide but in his other nine innings did not make more than 43, six times being caught at the wicket.

"There is intensity in playing Australia," he says. "There was no let-up from anyone. As a batter you would never have a period of 45 minutes or an hour where runs came freely. But you can only feel that intensity and that pressure from producing. The pressure imposed by Australia came from how good a side they were. All that talk of sledging and stuff – yes they do it but no more than any other side.

"There were four bowlers at the top of their games trying to work us over and that's when it's tough. But then during the partnership I had with Ian Bell at Perth they didn't have so much to say. All that external stuff actually comes from how good they are. It was an extremely tough tour."

Towards the end of his innings in his most recent Test match at the Riverside, Cook overtook another left-handed batsman in the England all-time list of run scorers. It was impossible, as the edged cut for four took him to 160 and past Frank Woolley, not to compare. Woolley was the embodiment of the graceful left-hander and to watch him (even to read about watching him) is to know what cricket must be like in heaven.

Cook is not this kind of left-hander. He is a pragmatist as a batsman who knows his strengths and plays to them. This in itself is an immense strength but you sense that it rankles slightly with Cook because of how it

is interpreted by others. They see a dull batsman and a dull man, neither of which conclusion is accurate.

He is well aware of the limitations of his method but aesthetic delight cannot be the sole purpose of cricket. There is a beauty in Cook's functionality. For every Woolley and David Gower, English cricket needs its Cook and its John Edrich, not least because you know, mostly, what you are going to get.

"The stats suggest that I'm not a dasher," says Cook. "It doesn't mean I can't play the shots but when you find a method in four-day and Test cricket that works for you, you stick with it. If it means grinding out runs, taking fewer risks and getting more rewards I think it is justified.

"What I have is the ability to grind out runs. I don't know fully where it comes from but I think it might be the music, being eight years old and being away from home and having to be disciplined. I think it has a massive influence. I don't really like talking about it but I have managed to score runs at every level."

The music is, of course, a reference to Cook's time as a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral between the ages of eight and 13. It taught him discipline and independence and it might have taught him how to open the batting for England. "They were probably the hardest five years you could ever expect an eight-to-13-year-old to go through," he has said. "It |

teaches you to be independent. It was bloody hard work, 24 hours a week singing, eight to nine in the morning at choir practice, then school, then four to six for a service and more practice. It wasn't Mickey Mouse, it was proper stuff and we were the best choir in the world. The concentration was the best thing about it, you couldn't make a mistake."

Concentration. It is the bedrock of Cook's batsmanship. He is as unflappable as he is unflamboyant. He watches and waits. He is voracious off his legs and anything that is given width is usually dispatched. His cover drive is workmanlike but does not summon visions of Woolley or Gower.

The hundred-free time was more difficult to cope with because it had never happened to him before. After St Paul's he went to Bedford School where he instantly took to the game. When he was 14 he was described by the Essex guru Keith Fletcher as the best schoolboy batsman he had ever seen. At 15 he played for Essex II. At 18 he made his Championship debut and scored 50 in his first three matches.

In 2004 he made his first first-class hundreds, in 2005 he burst into the national consciousness by scoring 214 from 234 balls against Australia five days before the match that would decide the Ashes. In 2006, he was flown to India as a replacement, summoned to England's Test tour mid-match from England A in the West Indies. He never did return to England A. Having been in the country three days after a flight of 8,712 miles he went out at Nagpur and made 60 and 104 not out.

His chief technical deficiency is the one that afflicts nine in 10 left-handers, maybe 99 out of hundred. They tend to be caught behind the wicket because they play at balls they could leave alone, drawn into playing by the angle of attack. He is better at leaving than he has ever been but then on the day we meet he has

just left a straight one and was leg before, the irony not being lost.

One day, it is probable that Cook will be captain of England. He was officially installed as Andrew Strauss's understudy on last winter's tour of the West Indies and is presumably in prime position to be his successor. By the time Strauss is ready to be replaced, Cook will be a couple of years older and will possess sufficient experience.

"Of course, I would like to be captain," he says. "I don't know how it would affect me when I get away from cricket, that's the only thing. But if ever I'm asked of course I'll do it, because it would eat at me too much if I didn't. I love cricket but I like being away from it as well. But being captain of England is a wonderful job and, although it's a lot of pressure when you wake up in the morning, you're captain of England that's brilliant."

Cook has found a delightful way of coping away from the strains of big-time cricket, of packing the memories of his last innings and the prospect of his next away in his kit bag. It is something he would be loath to endanger by assuming what is an all-consuming job.

"I have found a balance in my life which I am happy with," he says. "In cricket, if you don't get many runs it grates you, of course it grates you, it grates everyone. But it happens. But I have managed to get myself into a very happy position in my life personally and my girlfriend plays a massive part in it. I call it my other life. I do love what I do outside cricket."

He is slightly reluctant to talk about it because he treats it understandably as his downtime, a kind of retreat away from the intensity of his profession. It is farming.

"My girlfriend comes from a farming background and I spend a lot of time at her farm doing farming stuff. When you're pulling lambs out, or weighing them or worming them or doing whatever you do to sheep you're not thinking about Brett Lee. I'm a country boy at heart.

"I am much more happy in a country pub with 10 blokes having a pint than going to a night club. That's what I am, that's what I do. I love it when I go to London, but my escape is down on the farm. I love it, between Test matches when you've got your boots on and you're standing in three inches of cow shit."

But for now it is Cook the cricketer, the batsman who must repel Australia's finest. Like the rest of the country he is patently excited.

"You watch the countdown on Sky Sports News, it started at 100 days and now it's coming down rapidly," he says. "It will be a great eight weeks of cricket. It will be an amazing time to be a cricketer again and all you want to do is be successful.

"There are all the worries, all the nerves. I wouldn't know anybody who wouldn't get nervous when you start thinking about it. You know what the first day is going to be like in Cardiff, it's not going to be like playing for Essex against Kent at Tunbridge Wells among the rhododendrons. The eight weeks will be either bloody amazing or bitterly disappointing and I hope it's the first one. Without a shadow of doubt it can be and I know we have the blokes to do it. People are going to have to stand up as men and play some brilliant cricket at times."

Cook intends to be one of them.

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