‘You can’t really argue with a bloke who’s scored 10,000 runs’ – says Cook
On May 19, after one of the longest winter breaks he has ever experienced in his ten years as an England cricketer, Alastair Cook will lead his side out in the first Test against Sri Lanka, knowing that he is on the brink of an achievement that will cement his status among the mightiest run-harvesters of all time.
Ten thousand Test runs is on the agenda, a figure no Englishman has ever before approached, let alone surpassed. Cook’s own mentor, Graham Gooch, came closer than any England player before him, but ran out of gas at the age of 41, with 8900 in the bank, a mark that remained unchallenged for two decades until Cook himself ticked it off, once more at Headingley, against New Zealand last May.
And now, at the age of 31, Cook embarks on the 2016 season with 9964 to his name – just 36 runs shy. Though he has become conditioned to taking milestones in his stride in the course of a prolific career, even Cook recognises there will be an extra layer of symbolism when he completes this inevitable feat.
“Milestones are a weird thing,” he says, “because when you’re on 4000 runs you’re desperate to get 5000 and then you want 6000. But then you realise when you’re there it’s not quite as important as you thought before.
“But 10,000 is a massive milestone for any batsman because you can’t really argue with a bloke who’s scored 10,000 runs. No matter which way you’ve gone about it, that’s a lot of runs, in a lot of different conditions and being tested for a long period of time. So it’ll be a nice milestone when it comes, but I’ve got to get the 36 first.”
As Cook assesses his merits, it’s impossible to ignore a new undertone of self-awareness in his voice. It’s not so much that he has ever felt a sense of entitlement about representing England – although, when you consider that the first and only Test match that he ever missed, in Mumbai in March 2006, was more than a decade ago, he’s got more reason than most to think that way.
Rather, you suspect, it’s a legacy of those bruising 12 months in 2014-15 when he became so embattled on so many fronts that his form was often the least of his concerns. Between the final throes of the Kevin Pietersen saga and his sorry demise as England’s one-day leader, all Cook could do was make a virtue of his obduracy and ride out the stormiest year of his career as best he could.
And now, through the satisfactions of last summer’s Ashes triumph and a hard-earned series win in South Africa, he has emerged on the other side of the gauntlet – redeemed, certainly; hardened, no doubt, for no challenge has ever broken his spirit, but also ever so slightly more mortal.
The simple fact is, he’s the last of a titanic breed – an endurance athlete in a sport now dominated by the sprinters. Where once Cook raged against his limitations, insisting against all empirical evidence that his formidable willpower could compensate for the gaps in his one-day technique, now he is at peace with his game, and his place within it.
“When the decision was made, it hurt a lot,” says Cook. “I still would have loved to captain in that World Cup, but I understand the decision, I can see now that we were a year behind. Credit to the way Eoin [Morgan] has taken the team forward, alongside Trevor [Bayliss] and Farby [Paul Farbrace], they’re playing the right way.”
Cook’s angular, adhesive style has never seemed more at odds with the spirit of the age, with the public conversation turning ever more enthusiastically towards the sort of fearless strokeplay that carried Cook’s younger cohorts to the World T20 final.
Cook’s status is borne out by a glance down the list of Test cricket’s leading run scorers. A slew of retirements in recent seasons, including Sri Lanka’s legends, Kumar Sangakkara (12,400) and Mahela Jayawardene (11,814) and West Indies’ final link to their golden age, Shivnarine Chanderpaul (11,867) means that the top of the table is preserved in aspic, potentially never to be challenged – except by the man himself.
Younis Khan endures for now, on 9116, but at the age of 38 and with run-ins with the PCB becoming a daily occurrence, his ambitions may not extend too far beyond this summer’s four Tests in England.
And further down the list, with Michael Clarke (8643) and Pietersen (8181) gone, and AB de Villiers (8074) fluttering like a pennant to the IPL’s winds of change, the only other active Test cricketer with even half as many runs to his name is a man who would dearly love another crack, but may already have played his last.
Cook claims not to have spoken about England’s impending selection meeting when he met up with Ian Bell for dinner in Birmingham last week. Instead, he says, the pair met as brothers in arms, friends reunited after a rare winter apart, following Bell’s surprise omission from the South Africa tour.
“I hadn’t seen Belly since the UAE, so I thought it made sense to catch up,” Cook says. “I played a hundred and however many Test matches  with the guy, and Alice [Cook’s wife] knows Chantal [Bell’s wife] really well, and the kids. It’s an amazing thing, when you’re in the team together for so long and then you don’t go on one tour and you don’t see each other for five months. I thought it was really important to catch up with him as a friend and see how life is. It was a really nice meal.”
(The above are excerpts taken from a fantastic article by Andrew Miller, who is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. The full article can be read on cricinfo.com)