Chief Cook and bottle washer, Alastair did it all

When Alastair Cook faced his final inquisition as England cricket captain this week, he was at pains to say "this is not an obituary, I will still be around".

Around, up front and accountable.

Cook is giving up the strain of captaincy to return to the ranks. He will open the batting for as long as his country needs him. And perhaps for long enough to overhaul the greatest batsman of them all, India's Sachin Tendulkar, in runs accumulated.

Cook, discreet as ever, did not name that as a target. It would be out of character, and presumptuous, for him to have done so. Right now, he is 32, and 4,864 runs short of Tendulkar's extraordinary 15,921 Test career tally.

It sounds a far-fetched total. Cook would have to bat on for about 50 more Tests, and keep up his career average of 46.45 runs per innings, to eclipse it.

Yet at the current brutal rate of 17 Test matches a year (England's workload under Captain Cook last year), he would reach that tally within three calendar years. And even as he steps down to give more of himself to his wife and two daughters - and spend more time on his farm where he revels in lambing and working with the dogs - he talks of four or five more years as a Test cricketer. If selected.

What he is giving up, what he feels too drained to continue, is the leadership.

Some are born to lead, and others have leadership thrust upon them. Cricket is not like football, where a vanity skipper, David Beckham, was given the armband even when his England career had to be extended by picking up caps playing cameo roles as a substitute.

Beckham brought commercial value to the Football Association, hence his long stay as the face and fortune of a side that weren't going to win tournaments, with or without Golden Balls.

Cook, an essentially private person but a most reliable, painstaking team man, would no more sacrifice his wicket than get up on stage and sing a Spice Girls number. But he would, he did, take on the brunt of all the cares, the duties, of batting for his team in more than just carrying his bat. The cricket captain has a say in selection, and pretty much all the say in tactics on the field.

Photo: Reuters

When Cook's England won the Ashes (twice) against the Aussies it made the country feel ridiculously good about themselves. When his England were whitewashed 5-0 Down Under he was the first to be vilified.

And when that was replicated against India, handsome home victories followed by withering defeats on India's dry, spinner-friendly soil, the skipper was crucified by the media.

Even cricket's once-genteel game has no immunity from the malevolence of today's so-called social media.

That is where Cook's quiet integrity, his stubborn but honest personality, has less validity. The twits who think through their fingers and thumbs would not know, or recognise, the weight of responsibility in representing one's country as leader.

"I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles,"?Mahatma Gandhi said more than 70 years ago. "But today it means getting along with people."

Cook gets along with most people. One that he didn't was Kevin Pietersen, as he was reminded this week.

The sacking of K.P., Cook admitted, was no one's finest hour. Cook felt it had to be done at the time, but said at Lord's cricket ground on Tuesday that it was not a captain's decision alone.

The cricket establishment, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), fired Pietersen in 2014. Born in South Africa but preferring to represent England where his mother was born, Pietersen was the opposite to Cook with a bat in his hands.

Hit out or get out, might sum up Pietersen's cavalier attitude.

Cook was, and remains, ingrained in team responsibility.

But as most of the former Test captains who broadcast or write on the game must know, the decision of who is called to represent the country is by high committee.

Cook said this week that he feels he was hung out to dry over the Pietersen affair.

"I was part of the decision-making, as six or seven other people were,"?he said in an interview with one of his predecessors as captain, Nasser Hussain, on Sky Sports. "As much power you get as England captain, you don't have the ultimate decision on that sort of thing."

The history on that is often abridged by self-publicists who call themselves friends of Kevin Pietersen and foes of the establishment. The issue will not close with Cook standing down after the longest stint in England's Test captaincy history.

He skippered 59 games, won 24, drew 13, lost 22.

In personal terms, that represents a third of his career.

He was playing adult cricket at club level when he was 11 years old. Now, with the farm, the family and in his words training as "a bog standard"?county cricketer with Essex, he sheds some of the expectation to make countless appearances from village fetes to British ambassadorial roles as the face and voice of the team, the country.

Under the next skipper, probably Joe Root, he may give a mentor's reassurance. But, as Cook somehow maintained throughout his innings as leader, he will try to be singular in not giving up his wicket.

He has a way to go. Tendulkar batted through exactly 200 Tests to amass his 15,921 runs. Cook at the moment has had 140 Tests, for 11,057 runs.

Tendulkar, incidentally, tried captaincy in two spells, winning four of his 25 Tests in charge. No one regards him any the less for that, he is idolised by a billion people as the Master Blaster, the all-time great.

This article was first published on Feb 11, 2017.
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