Butcher: Cook’s record a remarkable feat of endurance
It feels appropriate that the Test match that makes Alastair Cook England’s most capped player comes with a nervous trip across continents, limited preparation time, and a life-changing moment. Much has come between – not least 10,599 runs – but this, of course, was how it all started for Cook.
Then, in Nagpur 2006, he made 60 and 104, the first of 29 (and counting) centuries, after a three-day journey from the Caribbean due to Marcus Trescothick falling unwell. Ten years and 133 Tests later (he has missed just one, in Mumbai two weeks after his debut), the birth of his second daughter delayed his arrival in Chittagong for a subcontinental winter he deems his greatest challenge yet.
Perhaps the most important delivery of England’s tour has already happened. England and the Cook family’s ploy was ambitious. During the ODI series, he spent a week in Dhaka acclimatising: hitting balls in the nets, pushing himself to his famously robust limits and taking catch after catch. On October 9, he headed home and, 36 hours after the baby was born a few days later, he was taking off from Heathrow again. Early on Monday evening he returned to the team hotel in Chittagong and spent Tuesday, a day off for the rest of the squad (bar keeper Jonny Bairstow), training. And they say the best laid plans go to waste?
“Like all these things you are in the lap of the gods but the most important thing is mum and baby are well,” he said. “As everyone knows it has been a fairly emotional few days… it doesn’t make you feel like the best husband and father in the world leaving only 18 hours after the birth but we are here now and you have to get stuck in. It is a very privileged position to captain or play for your country so that is part of the reason we made the decision as a family for me to come back.”
Cook’s mind, understandably, has not spent the last few days focussed on breaking Alec Stewart’s English record of 133 Test caps, and he “did have to be reminded about it yesterday”. But for all his modesty (he credited luck, not quality, with his endurance), there was a bashful honesty as he said: “I would never have thought in 2006 when I made my debut I would get close to breaking that…”
Despite the need to take 20 wickets, Cook and Joe Root surely hold the key to England’s daunting task before Christmas. No non-Asian has more than his 2,252 in 21 matches on the continent – a record he describes as “half-decent” – and this summer against Pakistan he looked as fluent as ever. Though his booting as ODI captain ahead of the 2015 World Cup was a brutal blow, he reflects now that, with just Tests to focus on, it was a blessing in disguise, for his batting, captaincy, but particularly his work-life balance.
“It is nice to play here knowing I have done well in the past. I don’t feel daunted by the conditions. I know what to expect and the game you have to play which has been successful for me in the past.
“Noticeably not playing one day cricket has lightened my load,” he says. “You get more substantial breaks which refresh you a lot more mentally and you can isolate each series or tour knowing that I have ten weeks here but January, February, March are back at home and you can do your training block or get away from it and spend some quality time at home. Having that balance over the last two years has made a massive difference.”
He may be unfazed by his latest dash, but Cook has packed his bags to tour countless times since March 2006, and with his family growing, each goodbye becomes tougher. He has been captain for the last 50 of his Tests, and will have 140 caps before turning 32; becoming the second man to reach 200 is feasible, but is it realistic? The only thing that has outweighed the runs are the air miles, and the symmetry of Cook’s great achievement of endurance and skill reminds us that England’s rock will not be around forever.
“We play Tests so quickly nowadays so I could [reach 200]. The danger is looking at it. Seventy-odd Test matches now seems a long way away and if I am brutally honest the more times you pack your bags to leave your family at home you do question how long you can keep doing it. But at this precise moment playing and being captain is something I am very proud of. It doesn’t matter whether you are playing your first game or your 130th it is a very proud moment to play for England and you should never ever forget that and I certainly don’t.”
For now, though, he is unconcerned by all that, and focussed on the matter in hand: bringing Nagpur to Chittagong: “You are not going to be absolutely perfect but there have been other times when I have flown halfway around the world and done alright so I wonder whether I can do it again?”
Will Macpherson writes on cricket for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket. @willis_macp
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.