(Photo: Michael Dodge / Getty Images)
By Peter Hayter
Only the hardest of hard-hearts would have found reasons to begrudge Alastair Cook the joy he must have felt in the moments of his great triumph at the Melbourne Cricket Ground this week and they know who they are.
The England opener had been through the same celebration 31 times in 150 matches prior to reaching three figures on day two of the fourth Test of these Ashes and had given us double-bubble on four other occasions before reaching his 200 on day three.
The routine has never changed since he scored his first England hundred on debut against India in Nagpur more than a decade ago: arms raised, helmet removed, dark eyes pointed skyward and his right gloved hand cupped to his ear in a gesture whose meaning he has kept guarded all those times over all those years.
But never can it all have meant quite so much to Cook, his teammates and his supporters, nor filled them with as much quiet satisfaction as it did when he upped those numbers to 32 and five.
With the memories of what happened on his last tour down under still stuck somewhere deep within his soul and the criticism of his part in the sacking of Kevin Pietersen so often employed since then as a stick with which to beat him, if exorcising those demons was as significant to him as some believed it might be, this was the innings he has been waiting four years to play.
But it would have meant so much more to him than any sense of personal validation, because by doing it not only did he prove he can still play at this level, but also because it showed he could carry on doing it for years.
Sunil Gavaskar once said that scoring 15,000 Test runs and making 50 centuries was not beyond Cook.
This time last week that sentiment seemed no more than wishful thinking.
Even those with no axe to grind were expressing sincere doubts over his future in the game, albeit somewhat more sympathetically.
On the eve of his 33rd Christmas Day birthday, Cook himself admitted he felt like the doors of the last chance saloon might be closing behind him, but he has busted them wide open again now.
Notwithstanding the absence of pace in the Melbourne pitch and through the air from an attack missing Mitchell Starc, in technical terms Cook’s success seems to have come from a rediscovery of batting rhythm encouraged by a more positive mindset of the kind recommended by Ricky Ponting, who last week urged him to, “Stop thinking about getting out and start thinking about scoring runs”.
But to fully appreciate some of the characteristics that have enabled Cook to return from the brink so many times, thoughts he shared almost immediately after leaving the field with Jimmy Anderson, on England’s overnight first innings score of 491 for nine, are worth a second look.
The dictionary tells us that the definition of humility is the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.
When told that he had overtaken Brian Lara to move to sixth on the list of all-time Test run-scorers (as well as Allan Border, Mahela Jayawardene and Shiv Chanderpaul since the start of his innings), Cook replied: “I feel a bit sorry for him (Lara)!”
And the mind’s eye flashed back to a view of a fresh-faced young colt in his early days as an England player happily setting up the team’s dartboard for hours of arrows with Steve Harmison and other senior stars who loved his combination of puppyish enthusiasm and uncomplaining appreciation of his place in the scheme of things from the very start. Back then he just always seemed to be smiling at his good luck to be there at all.
Of the feelings he took with him into this game, he first expressed “embarrassment” at his performances and at making such a thin contribution when so much was required of him if England were to stand any chance of retaining the Ashes this winter – a mere total of 83 runs in six innings at the top of the England order.
Then he referred to the battle he has been waging inside his head and heart ever since he aspired to batting for a living, in which fear of “failure”, of not living up to his potential, of fasting beneath the standards by which he wishes to be judged – and what all this would mean – have always been his major motivations.
“Those doubts are always there. I can’t say ‘I just put them to the back of my mind’, they are there and they have been beating me up for four or five weeks when I know I haven’t been playing very well.
“I suppose you listen to them and they annoy you and you take them with you every single day.”
And the mind’s ear flashed back to the time Cook explained that his quest for perfection came, in part, from the demands and expectations that were imposed on him as minimum requirements during his five years in the choir at St Paul’s Cathedral, from 1994 to 1999.
However much ammunition that background may have given the classroom sniggerers over the years, the disciplines instilled in him as minimum requirements during that time taught him two things.
The first is that there is no substitute for hard work.
After his desire had been questioned by Pietersen and Mitchell Johnson, among others, Cook responded by pointing out he had been putting in hours of extra batting practice with his personal coach Gary Palmer.
“That,” he argued, “is not a guy who’s given in. The people who are saying that have had no contact time with me. It’s just filling column inches.”
“There is some inner confidence in me that I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.”
And by being as good as his words, England’s highest Test run scorer and century maker has shown just how tough a cookie he really is.