An appropriately steady beat of grateful applause hung in The Oval air as Alastair Cook walked away from the international scene. For England’s highest ever run-scorer (12,472 runs at 45.35) in Tests, a solid tempo is integral. From being a cherubic eight-year-old with a voice as sweet as his timing, a diminutive schoolboy with impressive technique, a dutiful and highly-respected leader, to a gritty Test colossus, Cook’s life has always followed a rhythmic tune.
It was at the age of 13 that the talented choirboy struck the first right chord of his cricketing career. The move from Sr Paul’s Cathedral to Bedford school via a musical scholarship was the first step in shaping the Gloucester boy’s cricketing career.
20 years after making his debut for the first XI cricket team of Bedford school, he now walks into the sunset as England’s highest run-scorer and century-maker in Tests. As he bids adieu to international cricket, Cook’s Cricket Master at Bedford school at that time, Jeremy Farrell, Cricket Professional Andy Pick ( who coached the first eleven, organised and facilitated all cricket at the school, former England U-19 and Canada coach) and school acquaintance Tim Chapman (who played against him) walk down memory lane to trace Cook’s early days in school cricket where he built his cricketing foundation.
The first impression
Cook had already started building a reputation in junior cricket at the age of 11 when he scored 64 on debut for the Maldon Cricket Club in Essex, a club to which he is still attached. While his junior school didn’t have much cricket, Cook moved to Bedford school and impressed the masters at the very first sight.
“Cook came to the (Bedford) school the summer before he joined,” Farrell tells Firstpost. He was a tiny little boy. You would have seen the pictures of him as a quiet boy and yet he just had this desire to learn and the determination to better himself and that just really impressed us.”
“We very quickly realised he was a special talent,” Pick recalls. He had a good technique and good mental strength even for a youngster. The one thing he lacked really at that age was power but ultimately nature always gives you power as you grow up but not everybody had got Alastair’s technique.”
13-year-old Cook practised with the first team over the winter. The school had U-14, U-16, U-18, second XI and first XI teams. The first eleven was the main representative side of a school of 700 boys. Cook wanted to be in it right away but Farrell didn’t pick him for the first game given that there were seniors waiting in the wings who had worked their way up the rungs. He drafted him into the U-14 side. In the first game of the season, he opened the batting, got 44 not out, chasing 90. Off to a decent start.
A point to prove and the turning point
The week after his impressive debut, the famous childhood Cook story was scripted. In their annual match against the Bedford school first XI, the visiting MCC side turned up one-man short. Farrell got the 13-yeard-old out of an ongoing double physics lesson to play for the visiting side. And batting at No.3, he went on to score a century. That was the gateway to his entry into the 1st XI and he never looked back.
“I knew he had the talent, he was disappointed that I had not picked him (for the first eleven) so I gave him a chance to prove his point and he did it,” says Farrell.
“He’s not changed since. And from then on I was able to tell the seniors that ‘Look, you know, he might have only played two innings but you can see he is better’.”
That century for MCC was the turning point of Cook’s early cricketing career. Farrell draws parallels with Cook’s Test debut in Nagpur where he was summoned from about 8700 miles away in Antigua while on an England ‘A’ tour of Caribbean to replace Marcus Trescothick, who had flown back home with a stress-related illness and scored 64 in the first innings and 104 in the second.
“At the time, it was very important,” says Farrell. “Over time it has become one of those innings symptomatic of why he has achieved what he has done. Because whenever he has been given an opportunity, for example flying to Nagpur (on an SOS call) in 2006, he’s seized it.”
The hunger to score runs and the qualities that set him apart
While Cook amassed heaps of runs in the international arena, he was a prolific scorer in his school days too. He didn’t have the power to start off but that actually helped him develop his backfoot play as he used the pace to deflect and nudge the ball against bigger and stronger players.
“In school cricket, a really, really good player might score four or five hundreds for the first eleven. Alastair scored 19 hundreds including two double tons, one of which was against the school where Stuart Broad was bowling. So they always have a bit of a laugh about that. He just got lots and lots of runs. There was one period in his sixth year where he scored five hundreds in a row,” Farrell informs.
That double century against Broad’s school — Oakham — is still one of Farrell’s favourites. At that time, two coaches of the Oakham school, ex-England cricketers Frank Hayes and David Steele, walked up to Farrell to say, “It was the best schoolboy innings we have ever seen.”
Cook just didn’t want to stop. He wanted to be there till the end every time he walked out to make sure he finished off the match and that, according to Farrell, set him apart.
“If we were set a target of say 260 runs, there were some other good players who were able to say get 80 or 90 but they would get out with 60 or 70 still needed for victory. But what Alastair did, time and time again was, get 70, 80, 90, 120 not out and he would be there till the end and win us the game. He would just time his innings perfectly. He would make sure that he’s there to hit the winning runs,” Farrell recalls.
Farrell knows his numbers very well and is quick to point out that Cook opened the batting for the first XI 87 times, over five seasons and he was dismissed only 53 times. It’s not a surprise that he broke school run-scoring records (4500 runs approximately) and set new benchmarks.
Cook had developed the ability to concentrate for longer periods right from the start but there was one thing that would catalyse him to greater heights.
“He had complete lack of ego,” Farrell explains. “Quite often, young cricketers want to try and play all the shots in the book. But Alastair played as he does now. He knows there are shots that get him runs and ones that don’t. I remember talking to one of the boys who kept on getting out pulling (the ball) because he thought he needed to impose himself on the opposition attack. Whereas, if he had just accepted the fact that he didn’t play that shot very well, he would have got a lot more runs. With Alastair it was pretty much a case of I could do this, I could do that and not try and do anything else. And what he did very effectively was, punish the bad ball.”
And then there was that desire to improve. When Cook was 14, he realised he wasn’t fit enough. In those days Farrell and his senior staff used to go for a swim early morning. One day, Cook popped up at 6.30 in the morning and asked Farrell, “Can I come and join because I am not fit enough?” He was frank, honest and got the nod. “It wasn’t about anybody telling him to do it, it was about him wanting to make himself better,” explains Farrell. Cook is still one of the fittest players in the England team.
Right at the end of his time at school, Cook was playing for England U-19 in a four-day game at Canterbury, Kent which is a good three hours on the train from Bedford. The final day in Canterbury was rained off. At Bedford, they used to have a Friday night fielding practice. Cook got on the next train to Bedford and popped up in time to be a part of the fielding practice on a Friday night for a game on Saturday night.
“Now, nobody told him to do that. That’s the sort of bloke he was. Most schoolboys would think, ‘Oh well, you know what, I’ve just been playing for England and I don’t need to do the school fielding practice. But that wasn’t his approach at all. He wanted to be with the rest of the team preparing for next day’s game,” recalls Farrell.
The leadership traits
That he took up the responsibility to finish off the game every time he went out to bat and initiated the challenge of getting himself fitter, brought out the leader in him. It was only a matter of time that he captained the first eleven. He did it in the last two years. Then captained the U-19 and then the Test team. He ended up with a decent record as a captain.
“He always treated people with respect and always got that respect back,” says Pick. He was a good reader of the game and had a good tactical brain even as a youngster. He did everything that he should – practised well, played well, carried himself well off the field, he ate well, trained well. That’s the sort of thing you are looking for in a captain. And that’s exactly he’s done for a long time,” Pick adds.
The nice bloke
Myriad changes might have taken place in his life but the one thing that has remained a constant with Cook is his persona. He remembers his childhood mates and tries to make time to catch up with them. Pick describes him as a really nice man who has respect for and from everyone.
“There was a guy called James Kettleborough who was nearing Cook’s all-time school run-scoring record in the Old Bedfordian v School fixture in 2011, recalls Tim Chapman, a school acquaintance and someone who played against Cook. “He was 90 odd not out at stumps on Day 1 and needed around 30 more. We told Cooky he was likely to break his record. Cooky turned up the next morning with his dog to watch. He met JK and said, “Come on, I want you to do this. It’ll be great if you did this. Records are there to be broken.” Ultimately, JK did the unthinkable and as he walked off the field, Cooky was the first to congratulate him. He posed for photos for the local press and did some interviews too. He was a complete gentleman. We knew he was gutted to lose the record but he couldn’t have handled it any better. Legend!”
The student and the multitasker
Being a singer, musician, cricketer, and a student could demand a lot from a youngster. Cook, being the organised person he was, balanced it well. However, cricket always remained his priority. “He was a very talented musician but he was a passionate cricketer,” Farrell gives the final verdict.
So, is there anything about Cook that the world doesn’t know?
“The director of sport at Bedford used to be delighted with Alastair’s talents and skills,” Farrell recalls. “But he was an absolutely hopeless dancer. The director always used to tease him about that fact,” the ex-Bedford Cricket Master says with a hearty laugh.
The international run-machine
Several thousand runs in school and age-group cricket later, there were fifteen thousand seven hundred and thirty seven more runs amassed including 38 centuries in international cricket. The run-machine had hardly relented.
“To score 12,000 runs at an average of 45 is outstanding,” says Pick. To keep going for as long as he has and to stay in the team for as longs as he has, I think it’s a fantastic achievement. But I think the main thing for me is that he’s scored all his runs batting against the new ball.”
Somewhere down the line, opening the batting at school did help him get into the groove.
“It may have helped him to start thinking like an opening batsman,” says Pick. You need to learn how to open the batting and he started to learn how the opening batters play at an early age which was an advantage for sure.”
Emotions ran high as Cook headed back to the pavilion one last time, at The Oval. He started with a century against India and ended the same way (147). A fairytale ending to a fantastic career was a testimony to the endearing persona he had built over the years.
“Reflect with pride,” says Farrell to his pupil as he walks into the sunset.
And why not? All through his career, the talented musician has hit all the right notes.