Alastair Cook - A symbol of resilience and defiance
Alastair Cook isn't about flair. He's not flashy. He's not pretty to watch. His smile looks forced. His height, his body, his walk all seem unnatural. He almost always looks uncomfortable. He almost always is.
Right under the media glare, as English captain, is not really his place. It never should have been. But it is. Only because there's nothing that deters him. There's nothing he believes he can't do. There's probably nothing he can't do. The perfect symbol of resilience and defiance.
Cook has scored 9780 runs in Test cricket. Cook has faced 21075 balls in Test cricket. Yet, there has not been even one moment where his batting has looked natural, effortless, graceful. It's always been hard work, it's always been a graft. Unless some weird spirit overtakes him, it always will be.
Joe Root looks like he was born to score runs. Jos Buttler looks like he was born with a cricket bat in his hand. Ian Bell looks like he was born to make batting look more beautiful than a painter does his painting. Ben Stokes looks like he was made to drink protein shakes as a kid.
Alastair Cook. Nothing. He doesn't seem to have been blessed with anything. Except probably a good voice which made him a member of the choir down at Bedford. For everything else, he has slogged his guts out.
He worked and worked until he became a master at it. Through it all, he refused to think that anything was unachievable. Through it all, he defied the circumstances, the people who came between him and his goal. This is what separates him from the others. People have dreams. Cook has goals.
"Fate loves the fearless" - James Russell Lowell
It seems a bit scary then that a career built through hard work and determination was saved on two occasions by sheer fortune. A career that was saved through two missed chances.
The first, against Pakistan came in 2010. The defence that seemed so secure had been breached by Mohammed Amir and company in the first two matches. The third match was at the Oval, just before the spot-fixing issue took centre stage.
Cook was in such horrendous form, he should have been sitting out. But at the behest of captain and opening partner Andrew Strauss, he was given one more game. An opportunity which he almost let slip.
Batting on 10, he played at an outswinger he should have left. It took his edge. It went low between Yasir Hameed at second slip and Umar Akmal at third. By far, the two best fielders in the Pakistani side. They were slow to react. Too slow. They dived once the ball was past them. The ball sped to the third man boundary.
Cook heaved a sigh of relief. There were more risky shots, more plays and misses, but he didn’t offer another proper chance. He went on to score 110. As unconvincing as the innings was, it bought him some time. And he utilised it brilliantly. In the Ashes that followed, Cook made a reality-defying 766 runs in five tests. Enough said.
The second, probably the more important one, came against India in 2014, at the Rose Bowl in Southampton. Cook was now captain. Of a side that had just been whitewashed against Australia, lost a series at home to Sri Lanka, and were trailing 0-1 against the worst travellers in the world.
Cook was in miserable form himself. Form so bad, a toddler would have fancied getting him out first ball. The entire cricketing fraternity was calling for his sacking.
Cook ignored all that was spoken about him and did what he does best. Work. He took head coach Peter Moores with him to the nets every single day during the week-long break between the matches.
While the rest of the team was busy perfecting their Playstation skills, Cook was busy practising that same defence he had practised his entire life. He had been advised a change in technique. He followed it for the first two matches and found newer ways of getting out. Now, he wanted to go back to his original one. He eventually did.
Hours after hours of throwdowns later, Cook went into a match many saw as the most important in his career, with just a hint of confidence. Out in the middle, it all faded away. Cook poked and prodded. He seemed hesitant, and for just the second time in his career, his face showed signs of pressure. He never sweats. That day, he did.
It was no surprise then, that he edged debutant Pankaj Singh to Ravindra Jadeja at third slip when he was on 15. Jadeja is India's best fielder. He is also an overenthusiastic creature. The ball carried to him at knee height. Before it reached him, he was almost off celebrating. It hit the edge of his fingers and popped to the ground.
Cook ran a single. He ended up with a scratchy 95. England won the match and the series. Cook kept his place. Pankaj had to wait for another 404 deliveries to take his first Test wicket. That missed chance had a lot to do with all of it. If only.
There is a leg stump guard. A shuffle to the middle. A step deep into the crease. A strange backlift, a bit of elbow shaking. A press forward. There is the bat coming down, from some place it shouldn't be. There is a thud. Of the ball meeting the middle of the bat. There is no silken grace. No David Gower or VVS Laxman about it.
It's ugly. It's not technically correct. It's been criticised by every nameless face you can imagine. But it's effective. It's solid. It is what it is. A block. A defence. Alastair Cook's defence. A catalyst. A foundation for 9780 Test match runs and 28 centuries.
There is a certain beauty in the fact that a career defined by such self-belief and security was left so vulnerable at two stages. It leaves us feeling what could have been had those two chances been taken. It leaves us feeling where Cook's career would have headed had those two chances been taken.
But then, when we see Cook bat, we feel, we know, almost as an involuntary action, that he has to succeed. He has to score runs. Not because he was born to, but because he wants to. And if there's one thing that we could bet our lives on, it is on the fact that Alastair Cook will achieve whatever he wants to.
We are busy making our bucket lists. He has probably ticked off more than half of his. We have a dream. He has a goal. And he will defy everything to achieve it.