There is nothing like a cricket ball reverse-swinging towards you at 90mph, Alastair Cook tells me over the phone from Chennai, to distract the mind from concerns about terrorism. In almost the next breath, however, he mentions that there are guards carrying machine guns patrolling the corridor outside his hotel room. As Mr Spock might have said if he were in Kevin Pietersen's team: "It's international cricket, captain, but not as we know it."
On 26 November Cook was on the England bus, asleep, when mobile phones started ringing with the first reports of the atrocities in Mumbai. Pretty soon he was awake, caught up in the maelstrom of horror, uncertainty and fevered speculation that would propel the team home with what some have suggested was undue haste. "Yeah, the decision was made pretty quickly," Cook says. "But it was the right decision, in my opinion. It gave everyone a chance to take stock. On tour you're in a kind of bubble. Being home meant you could give it some clearer thought."
At the England hotel in Bhubaneswar Cook had watched television images, more graphic than were shown in Britain, of the attacks. "I couldn't get my head round what had happened," he says. "Cricket suddenly seemed very unimportant. That's why it helped to go home. It gave us time to settle." He adds, mentioning no names, that while some of his team-mates quickly made their minds up whether or not they wanted to return, he was undecided. "And I went to Abu Dhabi undecided. I'm very close to Jimmy Anderson so I talked to him a lot. But once Reg [Dickason, the team's security adviser], said he thought it was safe, that was good enough for me. Reg is a very trusted man in the camp, and he's done a fantastic job."
So, is it disconcerting, being one of the objects of "presidential-level" security? "Well, it's almost over the top in some ways. And it's a bit strange going to your room with people in the corridor carrying semi-automatic machine guns. But as a team we've made a conscious effort not to talk about it. At the end of the day we're on a cricket tour, and we don't want that attitude of 'let's do our two weeks and get out of here'. We want to focus properly on the cricket."
Cook is speaking at the end of the second day's play of the first Test, with England emphatically in charge, so the focus seems to be working. Later, in England's second innings, he added only nine to his competent first-innings knock of 52, and with all the laurels so far going to his opening partner and fellow left-hander Andrew Strauss, Cook will doubtless head for Mohali for the second Test starting on Friday keen to prove his own worth. After all, he knows that he can shine on the subcontinent, having made his maiden Test century in his maiden Test match – the youngest Englishman for more than half a century to do so – at Nagpur in 2006.
Our conversation begins shortly before the team's first departure for India, spiritually if not geographically about as far away from the subsequent slaughter in Mumbai and the machine guns of Chennai as it is possible to be, in an upstairs room in the pavilion at Chelmsford, home of his beloved Essex CCC. There, I invite him to reflect on his various entries in the record books. He is the youngest Englishman to reach 2,000 Test runs, and the only Englishman to score seven Test centuries before his 23rd birthday; indeed, he stands third in the all-time list of centurions less than 23 years old, behind two half-useful batsmen named Don Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar. How much, I ask him, does he value his various records?
"Well, seven Test centuries before the age of 23, just behind Bradman, I'm proud of that one. But records are strange. You can almost make them up just to suit your name."
Maybe, but his are bona fide records, and they have come far sooner than he expected. Less than three years ago Cook was content simply with a place in the England A side, in fact he remembers being on the A tour to the West Indies in 2006 and sitting on a beach in Antigua chatting with the spin-bowling coach Dave Parsons, who asked him whether he had set himself a deadline to get into the senior team. "I said that I didn't care whether I was 23 or 34 when I first played for England, as long as I did. A week later I had a Test hundred to my name."
Soon after that chat with Parsons, word reached Antigua that in India Michael Vaughan's knee problems had resurfaced. Cook was needed as a possible replacement and flew back to London that night, en route for Nagpur. In his hotel room in London he switched on the television and saw that Marcus Trescothick, assailed by psychological problems, was also leaving the tour. As so often in sport, one man's disaster was another's opportunity. At that moment, lying on his hotel bed, Cook knew that his full England debut almost certainly beckoned.
But there was still a formidable journey to complete. "I flew on to Mumbai, spent the whole day there, then on to Nagpur. And that first night in the hotel there my room was right next to the lift, so I didn't sleep well even though I was shattered. The next morning I batted first in the nets, which was a massive indication that I was going to play, but I only had a day and a half to get used to the idea. Luckily, my room was next to [Steve] Harmison and [Andrew] Flintoff, and their doors are forever open. They're addicted to darts, so there was some serious darts. They were great with me."
The Test match that followed will for ever be imprinted on his memory. "Straussy took first ball and played out a maiden, and I thought, 'This is it, why not just enjoy it?' Really, I was in a win-win situation. No one expected me to do anything, hardly anyone had even heard of me. And I was lucky because Test match cricket in India is not that well supported, so it was quite quiet, which helped. The trick of playing any sport at the highest level is remembering that it's the same game you've played since you were eight or nine. It's when you start thinking that you're playing in front of thousands, that's where the problems start."
Cook scored a creditable 60 in the first innings. In the second innings he wound up 104 not out. "Kev [Pietersen] came in and got 87 while I scored about 15, then Colly [Paul Collingwood] came in and started smashing it around, so if ever there was an ideal way to get a hundred, with the pressure off, that was it." Nonetheless, it took him more than six hours to reach 99. "And I know there was a sweepstake on how long I'd be stuck on 99. But I hit a cut shot straight away and that was it. That feeling, my first century for England, I'll never experience quite like it again."
Does he know who else scaled such heights on their debuts? "Straussy did, as he keeps reminding me. I think Thorpey [Graham Thorpe] did as well. And Matt Prior, obviously. There are 16 or 17 of us, I think."
None in the modern era, though, did so at such a tender age – a mere 21 years and 69 days – or with quite such a choirboy's countenance. I do not doubt that Cook can sledge with the best, but he looks as though the most raucous song he has ever sung on a team bus is "Once In Royal David's City", which befits the St Paul's Cathedral chorister that he once was. I ask him if choral music still makes his spirits soar, and he pulls a face as if to suggest it never did. "Erm, I haven't listened to it for a long time. But at 13 I'd sung with everyone, all the greatest singers in the world, people like Bryn Terfel and Kiri Te Kanawa."
Returning to cricket, which I think he would prefer me to do, who are the Terfels and Te Kanawas of the greensward, the performers who hit the notes, so to speak, that he yearns to reach? "The best I've ever seen is Ricky Ponting. I've never seen anyone strike the ball as well as he does, in terms of the crispness, and the time he seems to have. But Brian Lara is a genius on a different level, in that he can hit anything for four. I loved watching his backlift. He's got high hands, and I've got quite high hands too, but what he did was unteachable. Like Ronnie O'Sullivan playing snooker, it was God-given."
Cook, if he will forgive the analogy, is more of a Steve Davis at the crease, grinding out an innings and rarely hitting the ball in the air (significantly, his first-innings dismissal in Chennai followed a mistimed sweep-slog, a shot new to his repertoire). By his own admission he is ill-equipped for playing Twenty20 at the highest level, which might be why, refreshingly for a leading cricketer, he is alert to the dangers it poses to the five-day game.
"It will take a brighter man than me to work out how to fit Test cricket into the calendar with so much Twenty20," he says. "We're lucky in England that people still love Test cricket, which is not so in some other parts of the world. I think that Twenty20 needs to be managed right. But some people are just seeing dollar signs..."
As for his frailties in the slogging department, Cook puts them down to being a natural right-hander who plays left-handed, and therefore has a strong top hand, which helps him to keep the ball on the ground. "In Twenty20 it's all bottom hand," he says. "But I'm working at it. I want to become the best cricketer I can be in all forms of the game."
The man who first set him that objective was the former England batsman Derek Randall, his coach at Bedford School, which he attended on a music scholarship after leaving St Paul's Cathedral Choir School. Randall, I venture, must have been an idioysncratic mentor.
A huge smile. "Rags? He was mad. Everyone knows about Rags. It was very hard to balance music and sport, but Rags would work around that. If I couldn't do five o'clock practice he'd be there with me at eight in the morning, one to one, but I'll never forget him having an hour with me, then straight away going off to give the same attention to a nine-year-old kid from the prep school. I've never known anyone to love cricket so much. Sometimes we'd be in assembly and we'd look outside and see him running between the wickets playing imaginary shots, in his whites, at nine in the morning. He was never out of his whites. A lovely man."
And a man who enjoyed his finest moments against the Australians, with a memorable 174 in the Centenary Test in 1977, and further sparkling contributions in the 5-1 win Down Under in the 1978-79 Ashes. Is his former protégé already looking forward to making an impact on an Ashes series himself, having only known the ignominy of a 5-0 whitewash, in 2006-07?
"Yeah, I'd love to sit my grandkids on my knee one day and tell them I was part of an England team that won the Ashes. But there's plenty to think about before next summer. One of the reasons the lads did so well in 2005 was what they had done in 2004. We've got to reach those same heights, if we can."
Outplaying India, who so recently outplayed Australia, for so much of the first Test, is a heck of a start.
'Starting Out: My Story So Far', by Alastair Cook, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £19.99
Cook tour: By numbers
Cook made his debut for England against India in Nagpur in 2006. The current Test in Chennai is his 35th appearance for his country.
Number of tons Cook has scored for England. His first came on his debut, a 104 not out against India, while his last was 118 in Sri Lanka last December, a score which made him the first Englishman to score seven centuries before his 23rd birthday.
Cook's highest Test score, against Pakistan at Lord's in 2006.
The batsman has only been out for a duck once in 64 Test matches, against Sri Lanka in 2007.
Number of sixes hit in Test matches by Cook, during a score of 60 against New Zealand in 2008.
In July 2007, while playing India at Trent Bridge, Cook became the youngest Englishman to pass 1,500 Test runs. He also became the youngest to pass 2,000 when facing New Zealand this year.
Cook has scored one century for England in one-day cricket, during a 104-run victory over India at the Rose Bowl in August 2007.
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