The University of Durham is one of England’s most prestigious institutions, so much so that it has been included as part of an unofficial British ‘Ivy League’ by several academicians. So when Alastair Cook declined an offer to study in the spectacular cathedral city known for its narrow cobbled streets and leafy banks of the River Wear, it surprised many.
Derek Pringle, the cricketer-turned-cricket correspondent who, while at Cambridge, mastered the art of dividing time between books and bats (and balls), was left open-mouthed when he heard of Cook’s decision. “I told him he’d probably made a mistake,” says Pringle, who is here to cover the series for The Daily Telegraph. “And about five months later; no, it was longer than that, maybe nine, England were touring India. Michael Vaughan suffered a knee injury and Cook was asked to pack his bags and get here,” the former all-rounder recalls.
And the rest, as they always say, is history. Cook, then with the England ‘A’ side in the West Indies, jetted into Nagpur for the first Test and conjured up scores of 60 and 104 not out, just like that. “I bumped into him at the hotel and the first question he asked me was, ‘Do you still think I made a mistake?’” Pringle recollects, with a sheepish grin.
Amazingly enough, Cook always ends up making the right choices. Two years ago, before the Oval Test against Pakistan, he chose to revert to his original technique — the one with a double back-lift and back-and-across feet movement. That style had fetched him nine Test centuries; the period of experimentation yielded only three. He scored his 13th Test century almost immediately and his life changed for the better. His exploits in the Ashes later that year is the stuff of legends now. Those 766 runs in the five-Test series which England won 3-1 were just the beginning of a purple patch. It was India’s turn to face the wrath of his seemingly unaesthetic but determined batting in the English summer of 2011. Remember that 294 in the third Test against India at Edgbaston after scores of 12, 1, 2 and 5 to start with? He batted for 773 minutes without a change of gloves!
“Cook is a problem solver,” Pringle says, before adding that the baby-faced left-hander will certainly find a way to deal with his side’s embarrassing inability to negotiate quality spin bowling. “Remember this is Cook’s first series as captain. And he would be determined to win it. He comes here with a reputation of someone who can play spin very well, someone who’s prepared to bat for a long time. It won’t be very pretty, but it will be very effective.”
Pringle, who also watched Andrew Strauss & Co become the first English team in donkey’s years to beat Australia in their own backyard, has no hesitation in calling Cook the chief architect of that fruitful sojourn. “If he bats anything like that, then you guys are in serious trouble,” he says, rather bluntly.
And rightly so. The manner in which he batted in the three-day practice game against India ‘A’ last week spoke volumes of his powers of concentration. Agreed that an attack comprising Irfan Pathan, Ashok Dinda, R Vinay Kumar, Parvinder Awana and part-timer Yuvraj Singh wasn’t expected to give him sleepless nights, but occupying the crease for 379 minutes in Mumbai’s ‘October Heat’ is no mean feat. “It’s to be expected, really, that’s the way he is, very determined,” pace spearhead James Anderson says. “He wants to lead by example and he showed exactly how he wants to do that in this game.”
Curiously enough, Cook didn’t acquire the virtues of concentration by practising yoga, but by singing hymns. Cook, who grew up in Wickham Bishops, a village near Maldon in the county of Essex, joined the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School at the age of eight. And thanks to his singing and clarinet-playing skills, a scholarship to Bedford School also came his way. Those five years, he says, enabled him to learn about concentration. “Life in boarding school teaches you to be independent. It was bloody hard work, 24 hours a week singing, eight to nine in the morning at choir practice, then school, then four to six for a service and more practice. The concentration was the best thing about it. You couldn’t make a mistake. There were times I wished I wasn’t doing it but my batting has probably got a lot of what went into the choir. My mum and dad think so.”
There’s an interesting story surrounding Cook’s birth too. He was born on Christmas Day in 1984, in Gloucester, to Graham, a British Telecom engineer, and Elizabeth, a teacher from Swansea. They lived in Essex, but were planning to visit their families during the holidays when the second of three sons popped out. What’s more, he announced his arrival a good two months earlier than expected.
Come to think of it, Cook is anything but ‘premature’. In fact, he’s always been overly mature for his age. While at Bedford — he was 14 then — Cook failed to make the XI against MCC. And as luck would have it, the opposition was a player short. Cook got a chance to bat at No 3 and, by the time he fetched his kit from the dormitory and padded up, one of the openers had been dismissed. Cook rushed in and, well, scored a century against a team of boys much older than him.
Pringle also recalls the days when piled on the runs for Essex. “He was barely 17 then. And Keith Fletcher had told me then he’d never seen a kid as determined as Cook,” Pringle says. Derek Randall, another former England player, was Cook’s first guru, so to speak. But the student actually considers his coach “the most wonderfully eccentric man I have ever met”. Randall, though, only has good things to say about his ward. “You could see as soon as you saw him batting, and how quickly he saw the ball, that he was a natural,” says Randall, who coached Cook at Bedford.
No one follows England batting coach Graham Gooch’s philosophy of ‘daddy hundreds’ better. When he gets his eye in, there’s no stopping Cook. He wouldn’t mind boring you do death. He doesn’t care how he gets them, he just goes and gets them. And he doesn’t care what the world thinks.
So can Cook help his younger teammates learn the art of playing spin? “Look, Duncan Fletcher taught the England batsmen how to play spin. He introduced the forward press in their technique, but I doubt if too many players employed it. Similarly, Cook can teach his mates all he wants but in the end, you’ve got to bat in the middle,” Pringle says.
Here’s some more trivia. His in-laws own a sheep farm and Cook has gifted two of those furry mammals to Strauss, his predecessor and long-time opening partner. Recently, Cook had a great time in Argentina where he was honeymooning with wife Alice, his childhood sweetheart. His honeymoon period as Test skipper has just begun, but Cook is the last man who’ll take it easy. India needn’t be alarmed, for, England have just one Cook. But sometimes, just sometimes, a one-man army can do the damage.