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Alastair Cook knew it was time to leave

Alastair Cook knew it was time to leave

Whoever wrote that great cricketers are born and not made clearly never saw Cook.

——

By The Independent

Whoever wrote that great cricketers are born and not made clearly never saw Cook.

By Jonathan Liew

It’s the fundamental question for all opening batsmen: when to play, and when to leave. And so perhaps it is no surprise that when the time came for Alastair Cook to apply that question to himself, he addressed it with the same equanimity, the same unflappable judgement, the same cold dispassion with which he has treated each of the 26,086 balls he has faced in his Test career. 

The decline has been gentle but unmistakable. Until 2018, he had never averaged under 32 in a calendar year. So far this year, he is averaging 19. The latecareer surge that many foresaw when he gave up the captaincy in early 2017 never materialised.

For a man who built his success on a ruthless dedication to self-improvement, every fresh failure, every low number will have cut deep. His judgement around off-stump, the foundation stone to so many of his greatest batting monuments, began to desert him. The leviathan of England’s batting had been cut down to size. 

Every so often, of course, he’d show us glimpses of the old grit. And as he toiled towards double centuries in Birmingham last August and Melbourne last December, we were fleetingly reminded of what an indomitable force he was at his peak. No sweat, no mercy. There’ve been more talented England batsmen, more technicallycorrect, more dominant, more artful. But it’s hard to think of anybody who made more of themselves from the start they were given. 

It was a fortunate start, to be sure: a privileged upbringing, a boarding school, a settled family life. Even his first England call-up in 2006 had the ring of serendipity to it: from the beach in Antigua to the cauldron of Nagpur in just a few hectic hours. With barely time to compose himself, Cook strapped on his pads and hit a century on Test debut, the first of 32 he would score. It’s an England record, as are his 12,254 runs and 160 Tests. He was also fortunate with his mentors: Gooch at Essex, Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan with England. He was fortunate, between around 2009 and 2013, to play with some of the giants of the modern game, the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, men whose achievements reflected and amplified Cook’s own, culminating in one of the greatest England teams most of us have ever seen. 

But though he stood on the shoulders of giants, he made himself into one of his own. Whoever wrote that great cricketers are born and not made clearly never saw Cook.

He worked with a religious fervour on his balance, his foot movement, his trigger movements, his ducking and weaving, aware that what ultimately defines your success as a Test opener is not the range of strokes you possess to the bad balls (and in a 160-Test career you could probably count the number of Cook straight drives on the fingers of both hands), but how many of the good ones you can keep out. 

Through an exhaustive process of trial and error and thousands of balls in dimly-lit indoor nets, Cook would find a way. After failing twice in the Ashes of 2006-07 and 2009, he made extensive changes to his technique. A year later, with his place under threat during a home series against Pakistan, he changed it back and made a careersaving century at The Oval. 

We all know what happened next. Over the next two years, Cook would score almost 3,000 Test runs at an average of over 60. He would be man of the series against Australia in 2010-11 and India in 2012-13, England’s two greatest away triumphs of the modern era. He would make 294 against India at Edgbaston as England claimed the No 1 world ranking. 

When we talk about the greatness of Cook, this is the era we’ve in mind: a point in time when Cook was the most precious wicket in the side, a fortress, a figure who somehow radiated the serene calm that no fan of English cricket has ever taken for granted. It wouldn’t last.

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