(Photo: Getty Images)
By Peter Hayter
Just after a quarter to three on the first day of England’s third Test against South Africa at the Oval, the sight of Alastair Cook taking a moment to re-focus at the non-striker’s end served to reveal a vision of his future.
Joe Root, who replaced him as skipper, had just edged a decent Vernon Philander delivery to where Quinton de Kock pulled off a brilliant one-handed catch.
He had already lost another seemingly doomed opening partner in Keaton Jennings (the 11th so far, since the retirement of Andrew Strauss four summers ago) for a nine-ball duck which was not quite as impressive as it sounds.
A partnership with Essex colleague Tom Westley on his debut had suggested permanency but had been ended at 62-2.
Root, still apparently smarting from criticism about his side’s gung-ho batting, had started as though he had never heard it, or had chosen to ignore it, but after attempting to play with more circumspection was out for a neither-here-nor-there 29 and, in the 39th over, after having chosen to bat first, England were 113-3.
At the other end, Cook tucked his bat behind his left leg, allowed it to take his weight for a moment or two, then looked out from under his helmet with that mixture of disappointment, frustration and resignation with which England supporters are becoming all-too familiar.
And then he set himself to play his next ball as though it was his first.
It was not the first time we have seen this, we saw it again when a second debutant Dawid Malan was castled by a inswinging yorker from Big Vern that left him on his knees and it seems highly unlikely it will be the last.
The good news for him and for England, is that, truth be told, this is actually how he likes it.
When Cook released himself from the hardest, most scrutinised and occasionally unforgiving jobs in British sport, for a fleeting moment he might have been toying with the thought that the rest of his career would be somewhat less stressful.
Free from the responsibility of leadership, surely there would be fewer sleepless nights, no more tweets from Piers Morgan.
And then he would probably have told himself to be careful what he wished for, because what the 32-year-old former St Paul’s choirboy has always thrived on most is adversity.
In the event, the day had started breezily enough for him when, in the first over, he squeezed Morne Morkel through the slips to climb to eighth place on the list of all-time Test run-scorers. In the third he helped himself to two more boundaries off Morkel, the first, glory be, through the covers, the next, tucked off his hip to square leg.
But, as events unfolded, the significance of the fact that the man he replaced in the top ten was Allan Border grew by the minute. Cook has never been short on the kind of obduracy that earned the Aussie star his nickname “Captain Grumpy” and has always prided himself on his focus, concentration and stubbornness with the bat.
But with England’s batting facing not only a crisis of personnel but also of identity, seemingly torn between the need to be ultra-positive and the requirement to block and block and block if necessary, as it was in the second Test defeat at Lord’s, now, more than ever before in his stellar career, Cook is going to have to be the rock on which they build something resembling a credible force at the highest level.
In yesterday’s effort, reaching his 55th Test half-century from 128 deliveries, he batted as though this is not exactly news to him. Nor is the fact that the need for him to do so may intensify before it eases.
Cook has seen the future. I suspect the view rather appeals to him.