The Last Word: Let's all raise a glass to the Young Farmer down my local
After his exploits in India, Alastair Cook is about to go from ordinary local lad to global celebrity
Sunday 09 December 2012
At first glance he is just another Young Farmer, an unremarkable figure in a hoodie and working boots getting his round in at the Green Man, our village pub. His friends pick up pin money working as beaters at the local pheasant shoot, and he is reckoned to be handy with a shotgun.
Alastair Cook is a hero hiding in plain sight. The England cricket captain is accepted for who he is rather than what he is, or what he may become. In a world accustomed to the superficiality of celebrity he is deceptively, yet extraordinarily, ordinary.
He intermittently breaks cover at the village cricket club, and donated a signed pair of batting gloves to the Christmas Bazaar. Before he left for India, he could be seen jogging along the lanes with his wife's nephew, a promising rugby player at Bedford School, his alma mater.
Outside that bubble of normality, madness is about to ensue. Cook has entered a different dimension in Kolkata. Cricket, a sport defined by statistics, is in rapture to a record-breaker. Introducing himself as captain with a Test series win in the subcontinent will be the equivalent of a first-ball six.
Leadership is an intangible quality. It is as invisible yet as inevitable as gravity. The best captains reflect the virtues they expect from their team, and Cook's dedication to accumulation is an unspoken challenge to those around him.
He will hate the pretence implied by the title, but he is what management consultants call a fifth-level leader. That's the term created by business guru Jim Collins, who studied the chief executives of the most successful companies for his MBA textbook From Good to Great.
Collins found a common denominator: his quiet overachievers rejected the modern cult of personality, the penchant for self- aggrandisement and theatrical aggression. In his words they built "enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will".
That is Cook, in a thumbnail sketch Wisden could not match in a 5,000- word hagiography. His principles and personality are suited perfectly to his sport and his role within it.
Opening the batting is one of the hardest jobs because of the discipline it demands. Cook's achievements are remarkable because, as captain, he is obliged to develop a professional schizophrenia, to switch from thinking collectively to individually when he walks out to bat.
It is a process of constant recalibration. He cannot allow personal priorities to overwhelm the interests of his team, but must concentrate also on his quest for technical perfection. The reaction of his players in India has been revealing. Without exception they have been gushing to the point of being awestruck by his ability to compartmentalise his game and lead from the front.
Cook has it within him to become English cricket's version of Martin Johnson. The rugby World Cup was won by the force of his example rather than by the psychobabble of Clive Woodward. The captain's understated persona disguised a ferocious competitor whose players could not countenance letting him down.
The forthcoming Ashes series will present the Australians with a delicious dilemma. Cook is a mirror image of a succession of revered captains such as Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. He combines modesty with achievement, poise with pugnacity.
Cook is the antithesis of Kevin Pietersen. The captain's ego does not require ostentation, and the Bollywood gangsters who control Indian cricket and its thirst for instant gratification cannot buy his loyalty. But he knew he needed England's most dyn-amic batsman, and cut through the cant of the reintegration process.
He will be the first to stress he still stands in the shadows of greatness. Sachin Tendulkar has 51 Test centuries to his 23 and Ponting's 41.
No one really knows him. The fragments of his life are like Scrabble tiles – it will take time for them to be placed in the right order and make perfect sense.
Awards cover up hidden problems
These are the days of rubber chicken and ritual applause. It is awards season, when storied achievements are reduced to soundbites. It is all very cosy and a little complacent.
The modesty of Katherine Grainger, the grace of Jessica Ennis and the vivacity of Laura Trott are enduring virtues. Bradley Wiggins's Modfather impression has not lost its novelty value.
But what else has changed? Athletics and swimming are still being run by men manifestly unfit for purpose. The quangocrats are talking up a post-Olympic bounce in participation, and hoping we will not notice that 12 sports have reported a decline in interest.
Sport England – helpfully characterised as "the Department for a Walk in the Woods" by Niels de Vos, UK Athletics' hapless CEO – have also failed to engage the under-25s. De Vos clings to his job despite the arrogance and ignorance which led him to accuse more successful sports such as cycling and sailing of "technological doping".
So, too, does David Sparkes, British Swimming's chief executive, who implies he is too valuable to be sacrificed.
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