When England cricket captain Alastair Cook leads his team into the Ashes series in Australia on Thursday, he will doubtless be summoning up the memory of England’s victory in the summer. It’s a day that lives in my memory too. As Cook and the England players celebrated their Ashes triumph, I was buckling on my pads for my team, Authors CC, at Kirkby Portland in Nottinghamshire. Shuffling nervously to the wicket, I lasted three balls. My score: nought. Adding insult to injury, the leg-spinner who had fizzed a ball across my pads to have me stumped turned out to be 15.
The abyss that separates the pinnacle of brilliance and the depths of incompetence is one of the glories of sport. As I wrote in this magazine, it is part of what took me from hating cricket to obsessing about it. The Test opener who can hook a ball travelling at 90mph off his eyebrows and the ageing No 11 batsman who gets bowled out by a teenager in a village match are both engaged in the same activity, after all. It is just that it is rare for the two extremes to meet.
Days after my humiliation at the hands of the infant leg-spinner, though, came one of those rare occasions. Cook, a cricketer who bids fair to beat all records for England, and who scored 154 not out in the penultimate warm-up game in Australia last week, had agreed to tutor me in the arts of batting. What on earth would Cook make of my execrable stroke play? Would it be too humiliating for words to stand at the wicket in front of a man who has scored 25 Test centuries – or might I actually profit?
Cook appears to have a talent for putting people at ease. It has been noticeable, in the year since he became captain, just how cohesive a unit England have become. The ructions of 2012, when rows about satirical Twitter accounts and derogatory texts had set key players at each other’s throats, seem largely to have been patched over. Still only 28, Cook combines the hardness that defines all great sportsmen with a certain gentleness of manner.
He says he cannot remember a time before cricket. From the age of three, he has always had a bat in his hands. Like me, he grew up playing cricket in the back garden with his brothers, mimicking the idiosyncrasies of his favourite players and playing fantasy Test matches; unlike me, he possessed the ability to translate fantasy into ultimate reality. By the time he was 12, he began to realise that he might one day make it as a professional cricketer; when he was 21, he scored a double century against an Australian bowling attack in its full, ferocious pomp; one year later, in 2006, he made his Test debut. He marked it by scoring a hundred. Batting is in Cook’s bones.
It is unsurprising, then, that no sooner are we out together at the wicket, he is spotting ways I can be improved that no one else has noticed in 30 years. I should hold my bat lower down the handle; rest my glove against the front pad while waiting for the bowler to get to the wicket; tilt my head narrowly forward as the ball is being delivered. He gives this advice as though, rather than being utterly different types of cricketing life form, we in fact belong to the same species. “This is the best way to play the cut,” he confides, “for tall batsmen like us.” He executes a phantom shot of the kind I have watched him play so often for real against the world’s fastest bowlers – “Graham Gooch taught me that.” Then he throws a ball at me. I flail at it in ungainly fashion. Naturally, I miss it. He throws another – and this time I connect. I square cut the England captain – not a sentence I had ever imagined I would write. Soon afterwards, practising front-foot shots, I hit an on-drive for the first time in my life. Cook seems genuinely delighted. It is because the position of my head, now that I am tilting it forwards, is in the right position, he explains: “You have to have a power base.” I nod. I have no real idea what he means but feel delighted nevertheless, and puff out my chest.
His own favourite shot, he tells me, was the four he hit to bring up his first Test hundred. “Nothing will ever beat it for the feeling of pure elation,” he says, unexpectedly adding that the real joy of success was the way it made him feel he belonged in international cricket – that he was not an imposter in the England dressing room. I find this an oddly consoling confession. There have been very few games where I have not felt like a fraud, doomed to endure a mortifying exposure. I doubt that Cook has suffered the feelings of inadequacy that the inadequate are obliged to suffer; but, he confesses, every time he went up a level, his nerves were on edge: “It never changes.”
But then, a moment later, he contradicts himself. “It’s not the same game as when you first take it up.” He sounds almost wistful. A man who has scored more Test centuries than any other England batsman, become an Ashes-winning captain and beaten India in India – “the final frontier,” as he puts it – still has many more mountains left to conquer; but perhaps the sheer freshness of achievement is now gone for him.
The joy of being useless, of course, is that achievement never ceases to be fresh. For the final 20 minutes of our net, Cook attempts to teach me a second shot that I have never managed to play before: the pull. Cook himself probably plays it better than anyone else in the world: a shot that requires a batsman to pivot on his back leg and meet a rising ball that, if not dispatched, may very well thud into the groin or stomach. It requires courage, fast reactions and perfect timing: three qualities in which I am signally lacking. Yet by the end of the session I have played a pull. True, I have bruises all over my arm and body, and a badly twisted knee; but I have played what Cook has assured me is indeed a genuine, bona fide pull. I feel a bit like I have won the Ashes.
But will it work out in the middle? Three weeks later, in our last match of the season, I get my first chance to put into practice what I have been taught by the England captain. Once again, Authors CC are wobbling in pursuit of a target when I get to the wicket. Bearing in mind that my previous highest score all summer was 1, I should have been paralysed by my customary nerves and self-doubt. But was I? Not a bit of it. A cut, an on-drive, a pull, another on-drive – and before I know it, I have scored 20 not out, and won us the match. A fairytale ending to the season.
Two months on, and the memory of it remains as vivid as ever. An on-drive. I actually played an on-drive. It may not rank in the annals of cricketing achievement alongside Cook’s many centuries and Ashes victories – but I still count it as quite some feat.
England captain Alastair Cook is an ambassador for Yorkshire Bank, which has rewarded thousands of cricket fans in 2013 via its Giving Bat to You campaign
Tom Holland is author of “In the Shadow of the Sword” (Little, Brown, £10.99)