by Donald McRae
Alastair Cook: 'I've got no doubt it's going to be a fantastic Ashes'
Alastair Cook struggles to stifle a yawn before, giving into the inevitable, he covers his mouth and shakes his head. "Sorry," he mumbles, talking amidst yawning while raising a worry that we are set for a tedious interview with an England cricket captain whose reluctance to reveal much beyond his mechanical press conference routine has long been known. But I have also found Cook intriguing company when, on his own, he can offer sharp insights into his unyielding passion for batting and captaincy.
We seem to be in luck again because, turning his yawn into a laugh, he talks through a strange assortment of muffled noises. "The last couple of days have been tiring," he explains before reverting to his well-modulated tones to reveal the real reasons for his weariness. "I'm doing three nights of lambing this week, and I'm on again tonight. I don't mind apart from it taking me a while to wake up."
It is almost lunchtime and, on a couch at a Shepperton film studio, where he has just been photographed wearing England's new bright red Adidas one-day kit, Cook suddenly leans forward. His watery eyes clear into an intent gaze as he says, of his night-time lambing routine on his father-in-law's Bedfordshire farm: "Actually, it's one of my most enjoyable times. You're alone, just you and the dog, and it's always good to have time on your own."
The image of a dewy-eyed Cook, quietly delivering lambs at midnight alongside his trusty old mutt, appears at odds with the iron-willed master who, this past winter, became the youngest man to reach 7,000 Test-match runs while establishing himself as the leading century-maker in English Test history. Does he allow himself, in between midwifery duties in a warm barn at the dead of night, to reflect on these defining achievements?
"Of course," Cook says. "I think a lot when I'm on my own and much of it is about cricket. Those stats mean a lot to me. It's very hard to reflect properly when you're still playing but the hundreds one when I got my 23rd in Kolkata felt the most special because it broke a benchmark that had stood for a very long time.
"It felt good to do something no Englishman has done before. I was more elated than normal because most English cricketers know 22 hundreds were the most Test centuries ever scored by an Englishman. Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey, Geoff Boycott, KP [Kevin Pietersen] and me were all on 22. So it felt like a real landmark moment when I reached my 23rd."
Cook has since scored his 24th Test hundred, in Dunedin, during a long winter of strange contrasts. In his first series as England's new Test captain he went to India, with the team in disarray after losing at home to South Africa. Pietersen's texts to the opposition cruelly undermined Andrew Strauss, Cook's distinguished predecessor and friend, and opened up deep wounds. Yet, galvanised by Cook, whose batting was again monumental, England recovered from losing the opening Test to seal a 3-1 victory and their first series win in India in 27 years.
That admirable start to his Test captaincy was deflated by a 0-0 draw in New Zealand. England were bloody-minded in their refusal to accept defeat but were left bloody-nosed by a New Zealand team who will be encouraged as they begin the return series at Lord's on 16 May.
"It's been a long haul," Cook says, "and I haven't picked up a bat since we got home. A few years ago I might've been thinking: 'Shit, I need to go practice,' but not now. I could have had a few nets already but I would've drifted through them. I'll be switched on when we start."
On Monday, Cook returned for Essex against Hampshire at Chelmsford and, in his first bat of a new season, he held his county's innings together by scoring 59 off 176 balls. He will also play against Lancashire next week as he gathers himself for a hugely significant season as England's captain and enduring batting colossus whose certainty in his own strengths is matched by his ambition.
"My desire is as intense as ever and I've managed to keep that by getting the right balance. When I'm away from cricket I switch off totally. Otherwise I would never be able to keep that same hunger."
After facing New Zealand, the rest of the year will be as riveting as it is exhausting. The one-day ICC Champions Trophy, held in England, is followed by back-to-back Ashes series. "It's going to be an amazing summer," Cook says, "and we'll be playing in front of full crowds in every game."
His voracious appetite was again evident in India where he hit three centuries with his record-breaking 190 in Kolkata almost matched by the 176 he scored in Ahmedabad. In that first Test England were forced to follow on, 330 runs behind, but Cook was majestic. England still lost by nine wickets and Michael Vaughan tweeted: "It's now absolutely official 'This England side cannot play spin' 4-0 is definitely on the cards."
Cook's innings, however, was yet another masterpiece of application and concentration. "I'm not sure it was just me," he says, "because we all started to say: 'Actually we can play spin and trust ourselves on these wickets.' We'd had a tough time in Abu Dhabi against Pakistan the previous winter and our confidence against spin bowling had taken a hit. You feel under huge pressure those first 40 balls in subcontinental conditions. But if you're comfortable defending with men around the bat, things settle down.
"We looked at each other after that first Test and said there's not a huge amount of mystery there. And then we turned up at Mumbai on a wicket where you pretty much felt you'd be in trouble if you lost the toss. We lost it, they batted first and we knew it would spin. But to bowl them out for 300-odd was good and then KP's 186 [and Cook's 122] took away the pressure. We won and realised we could do it again and again."
Was victory in India his most satisfying achievement? "Yes," Cook murmurs thoughtfully, "especially if you consider where we were after Ahmedabad. From there to where we ended up was as good a turnaround as we've seen from England."
The reintegration of Pietersen was surprisingly successful and much of this can be attributed to Cook, even if his sympathy for Strauss remains. "It was a tough time for English cricket, and for the people involved, and something we would not want to go through again. The sorriest thing for me is that it was Straussy's last Test match. He did not deserve to have that leading into his last and 100th Test not when you think of the service he gave and the way he's gone about his business. But if Strauss had still been captain then the [Pietersen] issue would have been different. It's been handled pretty well from both sides. KP's realised his mistake, come back into the team and he can take a lot of credit since returning."
Does Cook enjoy Test captaincy? "It was different to how I imagined because you need diverse styles of captaincy. You have to play a certain way in the subcontinent and we adjusted really well. I was thinking a lot and it took me a long way outside my bubble. But New Zealand was quite a strange series and we didn't play as well as we would've liked. The good thing is that I managed to keep scoring runs straight away. It also happened with the one-day captaincy. That really boosts your confidence as captain."
Graham Gooch, England's batting coach, suggested that they had underestimated New Zealand. "I disagree," Cook counters. "The bottom line is that we didn't play very well. In the end we battled amazingly well to get the draw and showed lots of resilience. In the past I don't think we could handle the challenge of having to bat 160 overs. We can now."
Nick Compton, Cook's new opening partner, followed a patchy debut in India with two centuries in New Zealand. "I was heartened by his character in India," Cook says, "because it was a real test for a guy who had waited so long to play for England and then gets his chance in very difficult conditions. He was disappointed at getting in a few times, and not going on, but I said: 'Look, the hard bit, especially in subcontinental cricket, is getting in. If you can do that there, you will make lots of runs in more familiar conditions.' His New Zealand success did not surprise us."
Another of the new boys, young Joe Root, also impressed Cook. "I played against him in his first one-day game for Yorkshire but he was 16 then. I'd not seen him since but, in India, we knew he was special. He's obviously a mighty fine player but his mental strength and how he handles himself in the dressing room and training makes him a natural for international cricket."
Australia, in contrast, ended their recent 4-0 defeat to India in turmoil. Cook smiles when asked about the "homework" debacle, with four players dropped for not answering questions set by their coaches. "We're relying on heresay but it would be wrong to say we weren't interested in what was happening. But it's hard to have an opinion when you don't really know what's happening.
"I've got no doubt it's going to be a fantastic series. Australia probably should've beaten South Africa last year and that proved what a good side they can be. So we're motivated. We know if you do something special in an Ashes series it's remembered."
Before then, Cook believes, "England have a good chance of winning the Champions Trophy because we have a good record at home. But you need to be playing well. In a normal series you can have a couple of bad games and still win it. The Champions Trophy is very intense, three group games, a semi and then the final. We're very comfortable in our conditions and so this is a real opportunity. We want to take it."
The chance to make history, leading England to their first major one-day trophy and back-to-back Ashes victories, makes Cook pause. And he then smiles when remembering how far he has come since, eight years ago, he scored 214 for Essex against a then swaggering Australia. "It seems a world away. You'll look back at certain days in your career when you're finished and that'll be one of them. I was facing Lee, Kasprowicz, Gillespie, Tait and MacGill and was 197 not out at tea. It was a very flat Chelmsford wicket and the sun was out, but that innings made a massive difference to my career."
Cook has since played 90 Tests for England and, if he stays clear of injury, should make his 100th appearance in Perth in mid-December. He reaches over, grinning, and rubs the table leg. "Touch wood. It's amazing how the Tests rack up."
If Cook reaches his centenary of Tests as scheduled it will be a week before he turns 29 on Christmas Day. "It's gone so quickly. It's like when someone says: 'It's 10 years since you've finished school.' You can't believe it."
Cook has married his long-time girlfriend, Alice, scored 7,307 Test runs at an average of 49.04, and become England's one-day and Test team captain. "I've also done a lot of lambing," he says, "and I'm still an amateur compared to Alice. But my expertise will always be cricket. It's still my passion and I've got a lot more Tests left in me yet."
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