Scoring a double-hundred against the Australians is the stuff of boyhood cricketing dreams but England begin their defence of the Ashes next month with one batsman who has achieved the feat before his 21st birthday.
Reflecting on the 214 made for his county Essex against the Australians in the summer of 2005, Alastair Cook is engagingly modest about the day he left his calling card with the England selectors.
“It was just a great couple of days really,” says Cook, speaking in an interview organised by England sponsors Vodafone. “There was a great atmosphere and to score runs then will give me a lot of confidence when I go to play against the Aussies.
“It was obviously totally different to a Test match but to have it in the memory bank will definitely help me. I’ve played cricket over there [Australia] before at Willeton, near Perth. If you start worrying about things like the crowds or sledging, you take your eye off the ball.”
Indeed, the tall 21-year-old lefthander looks so at home in the Test arena it is hard to believe he made his debut in March. Then he was suddenly plucked out of an England A Team tour in the West Indies and put on a flight to Pakistan to join England proper.
Unfazed by jetlag, Cook calmly reeled off 60 and an undefeated 104 in the second innings at Nagpur.
“It was an amazing week,” recalls Cook. “To start off in Antigua, and then I got to England and was told Tres [Marcus Trescothick] was coming home, so it looked pretty sure I was going to play. It kind of worked in my favour in one way. There was no expectation on me, with everyone saying you’ll be jetlagged, you won’t be prepared. Luckily, I scored a few runs.”
Two more centuries this summer at home against Pakistan have cemented Cook’s reputation as England’s steadfast accumulator at the top of the order. He does not bat with David Gower’s grace or Kevin Pietersen’s flamboyance but an uncomplicated defensive technique is complemented by back-foot cuts through the offside and flicks off his hips. Cook’s mental resolve was most evident when compiling a scratchy century at Lord’s against Pakistan.
But some pundits have expressed concern that Cook might be too rigid a batsman when faced with spinning maestro Shane Warne. “So far I’ve got a hundred in India in spin conditions,” he counters. “I’ve faced Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan], Danish Kaneria, Shahid Afridi and Harbhajan Singh and scored runs. Obviously Shane Warne is exceptional but I know the areas to work on my batting against spin.”
Cook credits his sound temperament to his parents. When facing Warne and paceman Glenn McGrath, he says he will not change the way he has always played.
Another influence has been the eccentric former England batsman Derek Randall – Cook’s cricket coach at Bedford School. “He is crazy. He’ll admit that,” he says with a laugh. “He’s just a beauty – his enthusiasm for the game is still there at the age of 50 and that kind of rubbed off on me. You’d watch out of the window during lessons and stuff and he’d be there on the first-team square in his whites and his bat on his own as if he was batting against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson and even running for his shots.”
Reflecting on his first domestic summer as an England player, Cook rates his century against Pakistan at Old Trafford as his best effort so far because of its fluency.
Of the infamous abandoned fourth Test at The Oval, when the tourists were accused, but subsequently cleared, of ball-
tampering, Cook says: “As players we were just as confused as the public. It was a bad day for cricket.”
Will Jefferson, his former Essex team-mate, believes his friend will deliver Down Under because of his mental approach.
“He’s extremely level-headed,” says Jefferson. “He’s always been ahead of his years and has this knack of settling in comfortably to the level above.”
An Ashes series will certainly be the next level but Cook believes England can beat Australia again – provided “we enjoy the challenge”.