Good guy Alastair Cook knew cricket had to be enjoyed, not endured

By Peter Hayter

In the end Alastair Cook did exactly the right thing at exactly the right time in exactly the right manner, saving himself and everyone else involved in the question of how and when he should depart the international stage any potential embarrassment.

Typical of Cook, really, because whatever some might try and persuade you about his role in the sacking of Kevin Pietersen (and still they bleat), this is one of the good guys.

That he could play was obvious to all who watched him as a kid, a precocious, mature talent backed by almost superhuman powers of concentration I was first given a tip about by the then chairman of selectors David Graveney, more than a year before the young Essex batsman made his Test debut, which I then promptly managed to forget all about.

“Keep an eye on Alastair Cook,” Graveney told me. “Have a word with Graham Gooch about him. St Paul’s Cathedral choirboy, never sweats, makes loads of runs. Only 19, but he’ll definitely play for England and he’ll probably be captain one day, too. He’d make a good piece.”

Sure would have done. In my defence I plead the 2005 Ashes series getting in the way, so overwhelmingly that even when he made 214 against the Aussies at Chelmsford that September 3, the day after he was named the Cricket Writers’ Club Young Player of the Year for his brilliant county form and, fittingly, the very day, 13 years on, he chose to announce his retirement from England duty, it somehow got lost in the pre-Oval finale hoo-hah.

Then, all of a sudden, there he was, pitching up in Nagpur to replace the stricken Marcus Trescothick, after having flown half way round the world to get there from England’s A tour to West Indies, scoring a century and receiving a proposal of marriage from a lovely Indian girl in the crowd.

It didn’t take long to find out what his new teammates liked about him, just as much as his run-scoring.

Steve Harmison, in particular, loved him because he was prepared to take charge of the dartboard they carried with them wherever they went and he was happy to take the new boy under his wing, something Cook never forgot.

Freddie Flintoff did because he was unaffected and self-deprecating and cheeky and, in the way he looked and lived like he was having so much fun it was unfair on everyone else.

Tons of fun: Self-deprecating Alastair Cook scored 33 centuries over his Test career (photo: Getty Images)

And, even though his sense of enjoyment was sorely tested from time to time, never more so than during the KP fiasco and a level of personal abuse which would have been enough to wipe the grin from the face of Kriss Akabusi, one of the more revealing comments contained in his announcement of his intention to retire after the final Test against India at the Oval read: “Although it is a sad day, I can do so (retire) with a big smile on my face.”

For although no-one can surely ever have given more time and effort, first in pursuit of excellence – something he believes was instilled in him by the demands of singing in St Paul’s – then in a desire bordering on physical need to stay at the top of his profession, even in his darkest hours, what sustained him was a love of the game made deeper by the understanding that no matter how serious it can be, it is, after all, a game to be enjoyed, not endured.

When he took over the captaincy from Andrew Strauss in 2012, I informed him that it was his privilege to have become the eighth England skipper I had seen come and go in nearly a quarter of a century as a full-time cricket correspondent, after David Gower, Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss.

“Yes,” he smiled, “and you’ll see me off, too.” He was right, but of all of them he was the one I most wanted that decision to be his and his alone.

That same year Her Majesty’s Press were invited to Lord’s to record the launch of England’s commercial tie-up with the producers of a well-known brand of mineral water.

The KP issue was still too hot for the sponsors to handle – after Textgate, Pietersen had been dropped and left out of the squad for the upcoming tour to India, prior to his subsequent recall – and we had been politely but firmly informed that the new captain would not be taking any questions on that subject.

No ifs, buts, maybes or any other kind of skulduggery would be entertained.

“So,” I asked Cook, “would you say that for Kevin Pietersen to be brought back into the England team an awful lot of Buxton Water would have to flow under the bridge?”

True, Cook didn’t reply. But that was because he was laughing too much, as he was, so I’m informed, the first time someone likened his gawky style of running between wickets to that of Woody in Toy Story.

Textgate: Alastair Cook was left between a rock and a hard place and drew critics from Kevin Pietersen supporters (photo: Getty Images)

When this season began I was sure he would not last until its end as an England player because it looked like the grim Ashes struggle had sucked the life out of him. From the outside it seemed like the light had gone out.

Then, first when I saw him score 66 for Essex at Worcestershire, next, when he made 70 on the opening morning of the first Test against Pakistan at Lord’s and again when he hit 154 for England Lions against India A at New Road, full of all his old confidence and strength and sheer enjoyment, I changed my mind.

And my impression was strengthened by what the umpire Ian Blackwell, who had not set foot on the same pitch as Cook since they had made their Test debut together, told me at the close of play that day about an exchange between them.

Blackwell recalled: “I said to him, ‘are you not bored yet?’ He said, ‘not yet, what are you talking about? I love it’.”

Indeed, so completely was I convinced that Cook was ready to go again, and go big, that, prior to the start of the series against Virat Kohli’s men, I bet a colleague in the Press box a tenner that he would make two centuries against them. At the time of writing it was, of course, possible that I could still take the money.

But however Cook finishes his brilliant, record-breaking career, even those at the Oval whose sympathies may lie more firmly with one of Surrey’s ex-players, then they will surely not begrudge Cook one final set of good times to take back with him to his county and beyond.

And that is because, as well as all the runs, all 12,254 of them and the 32 centuries, too, we should also say thanks to him for sharing a love of the game which began “playing in the garden as a child” and from which Essex will now reap the full benefit, and for reminding us that no matter how serious it can be, it is, after all, a game to be enjoyed, not endured.

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