For some reason, towards the end of England’s spectacularly unsuccessful tour of Australia in the winter of 2013-14, my mind turned to Alastair Cook. In fact, I started to feel slightly sorry for him.
This was strange, because I tend towards the view that international sportsmen, and especially ones as prodigiously successful as Cook, have little need for sympathy, even when things are going badly. Viewed from the vantage point of the sort of mundane existence most of us have to endure, their lives are gilded.
However you look at it, though, that winter is one that Cook will never remember with much fondness, and I thought about the relief he would derive from the simple act of returning home and escaping the spotlight at last.
It is still early in the year in southern England. For those of us who have been here all winter it does not seem cold. But still the rain lashes down. Everything looks dirty. The entire country feels as though it is drowning.
Alastair Cook notices this. He feels the chill and does his England blazer up. Alice, his wife, has brought him a heavy overcoat from home; he puts it on and turns the collar up. As the beads of water drip down the car window, the realisation sets in that he is home. For months, those killing, unforgettable months he has spent on the other side of the world at the focus of what is perhaps the most savage and pitiful defeat English cricket has ever known, the weather has made little impression on his consciousness. It has been hot, of course it has been so hot, but he has been there before and he is famous for never breaking sweat. The only thing disorientating or unusual has been the intensity and clarity of the sunshine, and the burning dryness of the air. All this is gone, now.
As the car leaves Heathrow Airport behind, images of defeat cluster his mind. It is a chilling montage of lost tosses, dropped catches, poorly executed strokes and the harsh, unforgiving glare of the camera eye. Unwanted post-defeat interviews in soiled kit, with thousands of Australians leering and jeering and laughing. Mark Nicholas, a preening martinet in a tailored suit, firing the questions with a forced mixture of levity and accusation. Why? Why? Why? Airless press conferences with all the Aussies there, Conn and his mates, with their crude and tedious jibes, laughing behind their notepads as they mock the fact that England’s only truly successful player was born in New Zealand.
Nothing has prepared him for this. Not the gilded childhood, singing in the St.Paul’s choir, nor those adolescent summers piling up runs on the school ground at Bedford as public schoolboys in museum piece caps bend to his will. Not the previous winter’s glory in India, defying tiredness, searing heat and the weight of the past. There have been times these past few years when it has seemed as though Cook may be superhuman. We now know that he is not.
He was almost dropped by England once. But then came the Oval century against Pakistan, and the rest is history. 100 consecutive Tests and counting. Today, with jet lag setting in and defeat on his mind, he feels every one of those games in his legs and in his mind. The comforts of home cannot come soon enough.
The key turns in the lock. The house is warm. The bags are left in the hallway. Now, at last, a time to shed the layers of formal clothing crumpled by hours of international travel. A time to reflect on what has happened to him, and to the team which he has captained.
As the days turn into nights and back to days again, with Cook barely recognizing their passing, the recollections have an unwelcome tendency to come thick and fast, a bit like the Australian attack on one of its many good days. Cook relishes the opportunity to get away from everything – from holding a bat, from thinking constantly about bowling changes and field placings, from people, with microphones, or with beers in their hands, asking him ‘why? – and he enjoys the serenity and security of being in his own space. He watches television, he reads a little, he talks to Alice, he sorts through the mountain of tedious paperwork which has arrived while he has been away. He spends some time outside, with the farm animals which have failed to register his departure, his absence or his return. This is how he likes it. He has been noticed far too much over recent months, usually for the wrong reasons.
But, as the activity lulls, the memories and anxieties return. In an instant he is back at the Adelaide Oval, late in the day, his mind and body scrambled by the relentless heat and noise, by the batting of Clarke and Haddin and Harris, and by his team’s threadbare bowling. He is facing Mitchell Johnson, who is bowling to him as quickly as anyone has ever done. He sees the ball, but in an instant it is through him as his reactions, slowed by tiredness and stress, fail to cope. He hears his wicket break, and then, a heartbeat later, he hears the roar of the Australian crowd. In a sense this is flattering, as it signifies how highly his wicket is prized, but he knows that. He has no need for flattery. He needs runs.
Another time he is back in Perth. The heat has not receded and his team, theoretically, are chasing 504 to win. This time it is the hulking frame of Ryan Harris which confronts him. He sees the ball better this time as it doesn’t quite have the pace of Johnson’s delivery, but it swings in slightly through the air before cutting away off the pitch and hitting the top of his off stump. He knows he couldn’t have done anything more to counter it – few left-handed batsmen alive could have done – but it cuts to the quick even more as it is the first ball of the innings and he knows that in all probability the Ashes are about to be surrendered.
These are extracts; he also recalls dropped catches, poor strokes, captaincy decisions. While his confidence – the sort of confidence which derives from a life of almost unbroken success – has been affected, when it comes to his batting failures he knows very well that he can bat. He always could, and the numbers are in the book. Form is temporary, class is permanent, all that. But captaincy is different. He hasn’t done very much of it, and it shows, both on the field and off. He knows that what he has said about wanting to continue in the job, at least in Test cricket, is genuine and heartfelt. He wants the chance to show that he is capable of improvement. He wants the chance to help bring his England side back from its darkest hour. He feels, with Andy Flower, a man he likes and admires, still in charge, that better times lie ahead. Come the early summer in England, the pitches will be green, Jimmy and Broady will be fresh, perhaps Finny will be back, Stokes will be there. He knows how Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen play the seaming and swinging ball in English conditions. In his mind, for all its concerns, there is hope for the future.
A few days in, Cook is lazing around the house when the doorbell rings. Alice is nearer so she goes to the door. There is a brief, and, to Cook, inaudible, exchange of pleasantries. Then she calls to her husband:
“Alastair, Andy Flower is here to see you”.
Different Shades of Green, 2nd February 2014