Alastair Cook: English cricket's slow man

April 23 2011 / The Times

1. The art of slowness

“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?” Milan Kundera

In an age addicted to haste, Alastair Cook is cricket’s slow man. He does not play 50-over or Twenty20 cricket for England and was left out of the recent World Cup squad, even though, following his extraordinary successes in Australia last winter during the Ashes series, when he batted for 36 hours and 11 minutes and scored 766 runs at an average of 127.6, he is our premier batsman and the closest thing we now have to an English sporting hero. He specialises in the five-day Test match, the purest and most demanding form of the game, and his defining qualities are those from another, slower era: patience, concentration, stamina, endurance.

It was a winter of two halves for Cook. He left these islands in November relatively unknown and considered to be the weak link in England’s batting. He returned in January as a very famous man indeed, having inspired England to their first series win Down Under since 1986-87. The Aussies were not just beaten, they were humiliated. By the end of the series, the Australian media, usually so jingoistic and belligerently partisan, had turned on their players, as if the nation that finds confidence and self-definition through sport was having a collective panic attack.

Because captain Andrew Strauss and the rest of the squad stayed on in Australia until February to contest a protracted and largely meaningless one-day series, and then went straight off to India for the World Cup, it was left to Cook alone to enjoy the spoils and attention of an Ashes victory in Australia.

“I feel sorry for the lads,” he says when we meet at the Kentish Town studio of the photographer Rankin. “I’ve been pretty much the only one who’s been able to play and to enjoy the experience of winning because of the schedule. The schedule has to change before it all becomes meaningless. As players we don’t have much power. We keep on saying that we play too much cricket. I’ve been saying this since I was 18 and I’m now 26, and we just cram more and more games in. We can go on strike, which is not recommended, [but] at some stage it’ll have to change.”

Life is changing fast for Cook. He is recognised often now. “People keep coming up to me in pubs, shops and restaurants to say, ‘Well done.’” I was told by someone close to the England set-up that he is known for being, if not aloof, then “guarded” and “defensive”. He does not tweet. He has no presence on Facebook. He is not, though, a technophobe. He says he’s often online, sending e-mails. Indeed, this interview is taking place thanks to a sponsorship deal with Samsung to promote its first premium notebook, the Series 9.

2. Failing better

“Where have the heroes gone?” Milan Kundera

In the run-up to and during the recent World Cup on the Indian sub-continent, England stumbled around to find someone to open the batting alongside Strauss. They tried two different wicketkeepers in the role as well as Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. No one succeeded or quite convinced. Meanwhile, the man who should have been opening, would that the selectors had the eyes to see it, the man who had been ignored, was at home in Bedfordshire, spending long, satisfying days working on the farms of his partner, Alice Hunt. Cook (whose nickname is “Chef”; better than a cook) should have been in India, but his batting was considered to be too stately, too slow for the one-day jamboree.

Cook excels in the art of accumulation: of crease occupation, of wearing down his opponents, of simply being there. He attempts to eliminate risk from his game; there’s nothing flashy or exhibitionist in his shot selection. He doesn’t hit over the top or in the air. He’s no cavalier. And yet there’s something heroic about his sheer persistence, about the way he faces up to the new-ball challenge and goes about his business, slowly, relentlessly.

“As an opener, your responsibility is to the team; you’re the first line of defence,” he tells me. “That’s what opening the batting is; it’s all about trying to protect your mates, to get the bowlers into that second or third spell, to tire them.” Peter Roebuck, Australia’s best cricket writer, said of Cook as he was making his inexorable way towards a century in the second Test at Adelaide last December: “There seems to be no stress or pressure about his batting. He just seems able to live out there.”

This observation seemed just right to me – I was at that match and marvelling at Cook’s poise and control – because it captured well the apparent serenity of his batting throughout the Ashes series, especially when contrasted with the jittery way he’d played a few months earlier against Pakistan during the English summer. “Calmness or serenity,” Cook says now, “whatever you want to call it, I’m not a flamboyant batter; crash, bang, wallop and stuff. I kind of just grind away. When you’re in some form, you don’t notice. I’ve got a very unfussy game. Everyone knows where I’m going to try to score but they can’t always stop me. It’s all about risk management.”

One of the secrets of Cook’s success and the calm he can exhibit at the crease could be this: he doesn’t sweat. Is this true? Surely you sweat? “I don’t sweat when I’m batting. Some guys take off their helmets and water pours out. After two minutes their hands, their back, are drenched. I’m as dry as a whistle.

“I pride myself on my physical fitness. Like today, when I knew I would be doing this” – he gestures at the bustle around him in the studio – “I made sure that I got up at six and went for a run. I’ve learnt from Goochie [Graham Gooch, the former England captain who is now an Essex and England coach and Cook’s mentor]. He likes a glass of red wine, a bottle of red wine, but he always makes sure he’s up at six the next morning going for a run. If he eats a biscuit, he goes to the gym.”

Before the Ashes series began last November, Cook was being caricatured in the Australian media as a soft touch. “The Aussies didn’t rate me,” he says. Privately educated (Bedford School) and a former chorister (St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School), tall and handsome, he seemed like the kind of privileged Pom that Aussie hardmen delight in tormenting. With his thick black hair and dark eyes, he has very quickly become cricket’s first pin-up.

Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff were better known, but neither had Cook’s ease in front of a camera. “He’s the most photogenic cricketer I’ve ever seen,” swoons one of Rankin’s assistants. Rankin and his entourage of retouchers, technicians and processors swagger and swarm around Cook. “I don’t like cricket,” Rankin tells me. “But my wife does. She knows all about Cook. For me, he’s a natural in front of a camera. Look at him: a good-looking guy.” In certain poses, with his black shirt buttoned at the neck, he looks as if he’s wandered off the set of Another Country or Brideshead Revisited. In others, he resembles a young John Taylor from Duran Duran.

Like Strauss, who went to Radley and Durham University, Cook has, in the vernacular, poshed down over the years, perhaps because of the pressures to conform and of the group-think of the modern sports dressing room, with its ethos of anti-intellectualism and suspicion of amateurism. When, for instance, I move off sport to ask Cook if all cricketers, as it is often said, vote Conservative, he seems astounded. “I dunno, you’re going to have to ask. We’ve got quite a few northerners, so they might be more into Labour, I suppose.” How does he vote? “I don’t vote. Actually, I think I voted once, but I always forget to fill in the online form.”

Former Australian captain Steve Waugh used to employ, particularly against England and South Africa, what he called a strategy of “psychological disintegration”. He urged his players to sledge opponents remorselessly: traduce, abuse and ridicule them. The plan was always to expose not only technical but mental weakness. Very few Poms had a touch of the “mongrel” in them, as Aussies like to say. In other words, they were feeble, too easily put off their game, and so easily beaten.

This winter, the plan for the Australian bowlers was to target Cook, to abuse him into uselessness. After all, he was opening the innings, leading from the front. Get him early, when the ball is still hard, and you have a chance of knocking over England cheaply, as in previous series. And in some ways, Cook had already psychologically disintegrated – during the English summer of 2010, when he suffered a catastrophic loss of form and confidence against Pakistan’s bowlers.

“I watched Paul Collingwood against the Australians [in the Ashes series] and he was so out of touch,” Cook says. “You know what he’s going through, but still you can’t feel his pain. You feel for him, and you offer as much advice as you can, but there’s only one person in cricket who can drag you through that, and that’s you. It’s horrible watching someone going through it… When you’re out of form as a batter, it’s probably the worst job because you fail so often, so quickly, and you sit around waiting for such a long period of time.”

During that long summer of struggle, Alice encouraged and consoled him. “Yeah, we’ve been together since childhood. She’s seen most of it, unfortunately. She’s been exceptional. She is just a really good girl, and the fact that she does the farming bit, and is not scared to get her hands dirty, then dolls herself up when she needs to – it’s quite a nice balance as well.”

He escapes from cricket by working on the farm. “The farms are sheep, turkeys and arable,” he says, his voice quickening. “I’ve learnt so much: how to pull a lamb out, spot illnesses and deal with them. It’s physically demanding in that you’re on your feet pretty much all day. I’d like to spend more time on the farm, but it’s not possible. Am I teased about it? Well, Jimmy and Swanny bought me a flat cap for my birthday. But again, it’s so different. You score a Test hundred and the next day you’re mucking out sheep.”

Fame doesn’t interest him. What he wants is to continue playing cricket for Essex and England, work on the farm and “retain my low-keyness”. He adds: “Over the past few months, it’s been harder to be that low-key. Opportunities have come up and I’d be foolish not to take them. I don’t mind people coming up to me. When I was a boy, I once saw Mike Gatting at the Science Museum. I don’t know if it was really him but it looked like him and I was genuinely excited. So I understand. Of course, when I go for a night out, or when I go to watch the darts or the rugby, suddenly it becomes a bit more difficult to do stuff that I used to do all the time. But I still try to do it.”

3. Back to the beginning

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, speed and forgetting.” Milan Kundera

After the miseries of the Pakistan series, Cook moved forward by going back to the beginning. He stopped meddling and resorted to how he used to play as a very young cricketer.

Like a golfer who remodels a pure, natural swing only to find that, instead of improving, his game deteriorates, Cook originally began tinkering with his technique because he wanted to get even better.

“It was my idea to change it,” he says. “I changed my foot triggers and my back foot movements. I’d had a decent career, played in a few Ashes series, but hadn’t done as well as I’d have liked against the best sides. I thought changing my technique might help. In some aspects, it did. I scored three Test hundreds [with the new technique] and some runs in one-day cricket, so it can’t have been all bad.” Until the Pakistan series, that is. “Now I’ve gone back to what I did originally,” he says. “It was a battle to always think about technique. No matter how often you try to change, it takes a long time to get it in your memory.”

On arriving in Australia, in November, England played their first warm-up game against Western Australia in Perth. Cook failed in both innings, to the delight of his Australian disparagers. “I thought: ‘Oh, no, here we go again.’?” Then, in the second warm-up game, in Adelaide, he found some form. His feet began to move just as he would have wished and it was as if the burdens of the summer were no longer quite so heavy. “We could dream about beating Australia, but I don’t think it was made reality until we had played those first couple of warm-up games,” he says. “We played some really good cricket and managed to dominate state sides, which hadn’t been done for a while. That gave us confidence. I felt I was hitting the ball really well. The method, the form and the method; if I could carry on doing that, I thought I had a chance of getting a few runs in the Tests.”

And yet, even now, Cook still fears failure. “What happened to me in Australia was a wonderful experience. Can I do it again? For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to play for England, but you never think you’re good enough, even when you’re breaking records at schoolboy level. Even when you score your first 200, you think: ‘Well, I haven’t got a cap.’ You never think you’ve achieved what you can, because of all those people ahead of you.”

He made his England debut at the age of 20 against India in Nagpur, and scored a century. “Even then,” he says, “you think: ‘Yeah, I’ve made a Test hundred on debut, but can I make another one?’ That’s how it goes on. Some sportsmen are driven by success, but I’m driven by the memory and fear of failure. I’ve been there. I know how it feels.”

Cook is a slow, deliberative cricketer in a fast-changing game. He understands, as Milan Kundera wrote, that there is a secret bond between slowness and memory. He broods on the memories of failure. He knows how it feels not to be in control. What he seeks above all else are those rare periods of control, of grace, when time seems to slow and he enters into a state of enraptured concentration, when he is able to live out there at the crease as he grinds his slow, remorseless way towards another match-winning century and to becoming an unlikely sporting hero of our impatient times.