16.9.18

When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease

When the moment comes, and the gathering stands
And the clock turns back to reflect
On those years of grace, as the footsteps trace
For the last time out of the act
Well this way of life’s recollection
The hallowed strip in the haze
The fabled men in the noonday sun
Are much more than just yarns of their days

Roy Harper, When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease

When John Murray - a man who was simply ‘JT’ to a generation - died in late July, Mike Selvey, who is old enough to have played with him and knew him to the very end of his life, posted a link on Twitter to a video of Roy Harper’s agelessly evocative song When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease. It represented Selvey’s sadness at the loss of a colleague, hero, friend and mentor.

In the maelstrom of recollection and emotion that filled the space between the announcement of Alastair Cook’s retirement and the end of his final Test match, thoughts of the song seeped inexorably into my mind.

In Cook’s case the song seems both fitting and also ludicrously inappropriate. While he has left the Test crease for good, he is very far from anybody’s notion of an old cricketer. If anyone normal had played in as many games, seen off as many opening bursts with the lacquered, hard, new ball denting bat, flesh and bone, or spent hours on the field in weather hot enough to kill, or captained his country through the physical and psychological torment of crushing defeat to their bitterest rivals, they would be wizened and bent double like a cricketing Quasimodo. Not Cook, though. None of these experiences seems to have aged him at all.

Although Alastair Cook hopefully has many decades of life ahead of him, his retirement can be viewed as a kind of death. The death of a certain style of batsmanship, perhaps; or, alternatively, the death of an era.

Few people are going to get too misty eyed over the loss of Cook’s collection of staccato half-strokes, even if I will always contend that he wasn’t as ugly a player as many thought, at least on those occasions when - such as those two days in Melbourne, when, perhaps just starting to feel his career slipping away - he trusted himself to really drive the ball through the offside, rather than merely helping it into the gaps with the air of grim suspicion which years of opening the batting had induced.

However, in some ways, the fact that so many found Cook's style jarring was a welcome counterpoint to all the other aspects of him that could seem too good to be true: The matchless fitness, the failure to sweat, the seeming inability to ever sustain an injury, the apparent imperviousness to stress, the way in which his Test career concluded. True heroes can never be too perfect.

Great sportsmen make the difficult look easy, but Cook frequently did the opposite. If that alone means that for all his unique longevity he isn’t quite up with England’s very greatest players in aesthetic, rather than the purely numerical terms in which he is king, his significance goes far beyond the legacy of a thousand bent-kneed nudges through the leg-side.

It’s purely a coincidence that I began writing about cricket on the Web during the months following Cook’s Test debut. Loads of people were doing the same then. Many have fallen by the wayside, some have gone on to bigger things, others, like me, are still around in the shadows, occasionally stirred to write something by an event which particularly resonates with them. For each and every one of us, love him or loathe him (and, in case anyone doesn’t know, there are people who really loathe him), Cook has always been there.

That was a different time. The Ashes had just come home, and English Test cricket on terrestrial television was a fresh memory, not a distant dream. For many of the summers that followed - and the occasional extraordinary winter - Cook stood at the fulcrum of an England team which was as good as any in the world.

It will soon be Cook’s fate to rejoin the likes of Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott on the county circuit, as well as his other compatriots - Strauss, and KP, and Matt Prior, and Monty, and Swanny, doing whatever it is they’re doing in the half-life of near memory.

Even Cook’s greatest innings rarely quickened the pulse. They were efforts of will, of concentration, of understated poise. Monuments to the triumph of the mind. But perhaps an even greater impression was left by his courage, his dignity under pressure, his innate modesty and his decency.

In England, autumn is setting in now. Anyone who knows the country - as Cook, settling into life as a former Test cricketer by striding across farmland somewhere in southern England, assuredly does - recognizes what this feels like. Cooler mornings, fresh breezes, early sunsets. A time of change, a time for reflection, and a time for memories of what has been lost.

One memory of Cook: It is Melbourne; it is two days after Christmas, 2017. Cook, not for the first time, has seemingly rescued his ailing career from the brink of terminal decline. At the day's end he is 104 not out. Although, as usual, he is reluctant to talk about himself and what he does, he agrees to answer questions from some of BT Sport's shifting cast of characters. He says a few things about what he's done, about settling in when you're wondering if you can still bat, about the hesitant embrace of some semblance of form, about the drives starting to flow, about reaching his hundred in the day's final over, bowled by Australia's captain.

These are the themes. I can't remember everything he said - with Cook you rarely could - but something I strongly recall is Cook saying, clearly, without artifice, that 'it sounds like I'm making myself out to be a good player'.

You were, Alastair. You really, really were.

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