India vs England: Life comes full circle for Alastair Cook at The Oval

Alastair Cook’s Test journey, which began with a century against India in Nagpur 12 years ago, comes to an end with a ton in London.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: September 11, 2018 11:12:46 am
Alastair Cook raises his helmet as he celebrates his 33rd and final Test century on Day Four of the fifth Test against India at the Oval on Monday. (Source: Reuters)

Alastair Cook’s biggest bugbear are mobile phones. “Everyone spends too much time on them, including me,” he had once said. He would be thrilled that in this digital age, on his last day batting for England, it would be an acoustic memory that he would get as a takeaway. Not many in the full house at The Oval whipped out their phones. No one shouted his name, there were no chants. Instead, a thunderous, goose-bumpy, rolling, endless hand-clapping erupted. He waved at them, their hands kept banging. He stood on the middle of pitch looking sheepishly, but his ears still echoed with heartwarming applause. He literally waved at them as if to say, “C’mon now, shut up, you guys’, but they didn’t. It got to a point where he almost cried. As the big screen went for a close-up, they relented.

When he had first come to London as a boy from his village in Gloucestershire to sing at St Paul’s Cathedral as a choirboy, it was the loudness of the traffic that he noticed. London traffic can get as bad as any but it really isn’t loud; not many horn, not many scream out, it’s not Delhi, but for a boy from a quiet village it must have been too much. After years, one of his last cricketing memories from London would be the biggest ruckus of noise he would have ever heard: They all stood up, some with chef hats, their beer glasses plonked down; if someone had gone quietly collecting their glasses, no one would have noticed. Most of the beer glasses at The Oval are special stack cups that require one-pound as caution deposit and one could have made a killing, returning it to collect the money at the counter. Don’t raise eyebrows, Cook would have understood. Once as a kid, he stole penny sweets from the local corner shop. “My mum would be disappointed when she reads this,” he had told the interviewer. “Huh, isn’t that his wife in the trench coat with the daughter in her arms? Risky, don’t you think? Due for labour anytime.” You wonder aloud at the bar when the big screen threw up the image of Cook’s wife in the stands and you get classic English humour in response. “Not really. I love him but his batting isn’t really exciting, is it? She is safe. Nothing is going to trigger any birth pangs!” Laughter in the section. It was a day to laugh, shed emotional tears and show appreciation to a departing graceful star. Some would have perhaps felt a bit sorry for India.

Dhawan 1, Pujara, 0, Kohli 0

The marathon knocks from Cook and Joe Root flatted India’s spirits and it showed in their batting. Even the dependable Indian landmarks of the series came tumbling down. Virat Kohli, the only batsman who sparkled right through the series, was fished out for a duck. Cheteshwar Pujara, who had rebuilt his technique so effectively, was trapped in front for a duck. The Indian seamers, who had enthralled us all summer, cracked and leaked runs. What chance did the others have? Five-Test series can flatten even battle-hardened veterans; this team is hardly that and they were scorched in the end. At his family box in the stands, a couple of farmers from Cook’s farm in Woburn, a village near Bedfordshire, had come. His childhood friends too were there. They were all too emotional to talk. Too focused to miss out on any cricket. Even after Cook got out. Later, Cook would borrow binoculars and peer out at them from the balcony. A personal moment in public. A lovely English family day. The last time he came close to tears on a cricket field too was against India. In 2014 at Southampton. His head was on the selectorial block but he came through with a 95. In the lead-up to this Test, he had looked back at that moment and said it was probably good that he didn’t get his hundred as he would have broken down. He nearly did on Monday. His family, friends from the city, friends from the farm, were all in the audience. Cook apparently loves his Jack Wills tracksuit bottoms and would like nothing more than slob around in a T-shirt and flip flops. He now just has one more day at the cricket. He has signed a contract to play for his county Essex for three years but has added a rider that in case he can’t get his competitive juices up, he might not play that long. Lot more lambing and slobbing time, then. From a choirboy who has sung in front of the Queen, alongside Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, it’s been an incredible life. He doesn’t listen to much choir music anymore, he once said, but he does play the saxophone now and then. One of his friends talks about the time when Cook played the Beatles song ‘Hey Jude’ at his sister’s wedding and got a rapturous reaction. Perhaps, the best piece of music he heard on field would be that applause.

First and last

He loves his steak, chips, roast potatoes, parsnips and roast lamb – and Indian bowling. He had started with a debut hundred against them and has ended with a memorable ton. The first one gave him unadulterated joy — “I have never felt such an emotion again” and the last one nearly pricked his tear ducts. What the crowd loved was the fact that he didn’t have to graft out a ton but after a point in his knock, was almost indulging himself to cuts, drives, pulls, late cuts and sweeps – he piled it on. It’s trivia famous among English cricket fans: that Cook never sweats. It’s India who sweated and the crowd that soaked in admiration. Cook smiled, nearly cried, and then smiled again. As a boy, he dreamt of playing cricket for England. That’s done. As an adult, he had talked about his epitaph: “A nice family man who was half decent at cricket.” That’s done too.

There is a Barmy Army song for Cook that they used to sing in years gone by. Sung to the tune of YMCA, it goes like this:

Young man, when you come to the crease
I said young man, let your runs never cease
I said stay there and you’ll score lots of runs,
and you’ll make many more tons
runs runs runs runs runs
It’s England’s number 1 Alastair Cook
It’s England’s Number 1 Alastair Cook
Put your bat in the air, play the hook when you dare
We’ll come and cheer you on.

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