Cricket fans are an awfully difficult lot to please. We appreciate silken cover drives, but when an attempted one ends up in the hands of a slip fielder at an inopportune moment in the game, we are apt to criticise the batsman for having the concentration of a windmill. Contrariwise, we may shake our heads when a batsman returns to the pavilion 175 not out after nine hours at the crease, because the innings lacked that special something.
Alastair Cook, who retires from international cricket next week after the Oval Test, has been seldom a target of the former reaction and often of the latter, in a decorated international career that has spanned twelve years and 160 Test matches.
Alastair Cook's England career
If the fanfare surrounding T20 spells out the zeitgeist of the day, Cook has been its quietly obdurate antithesis. Ask Cook to pen a literary piece, and you are likely to get a post-modern epic, free from the fripperies of lyrical beauty and evocative metaphor.
It might have helped that the aesthetic division of labour was neat among the English batsmen who played a hundred Tests or more during Cook's time: Andrew Strauss was the creative architect, Ian Bell the glorious painter, Kevin Pietersen the outrageous sorcerer and Alastair Cook, well, the house plumber who did not sweat.
Without Cook, though, the house that was the England batting order should have leaked to defeat far more frequently than it has done in the past twelve years.
The high water marks of Cook's batting career are as much a matter of fact as they are of fable. Over 700 runs in an Ashes win against Australia in Australia. Three hundreds in a series win in India as captain. Highest score of 294 against a number one-ranked Test team. Prolific run in Asia. 12254 runs (to date) punctuated by 56 half centuries, thirty-two centuries and five double hundreds. And 173 catches, most of them in the slip cordon. These numbers represent, to quote Andrew Miller, "a monumental body of work." For all that, however, Cook has remained, even as a captain, sometimes to his own detriment, the quintessential backstage man.
An ambassador for substance
'Nurdles' and 'nudges' are the words commonly associated with Cook's batting; even his cover drives often seemed constructed, industrious extensions of defensive blocks they, rather than caressed.
Watching Cook bat, sometimes, made one wonder if his mission in life was to give lie to the popular opinion that left-handed batsmen are born artists. With Graeme Smith and Shivnarine Chanderpaul for company, however, he has demonstrated that runs are more significant, and better remembered at the end of the day, than the methods employed to score them.
If Cook had been a bowler, therefore, he would probably have been Anil Kumble (rather than Shane Warne), a sportsman often defined by what he lacked but elevated to unimpeachable greatness by what he did, and an ambassador for unassuming substance over assumed style.
All things small and great must inevitably end, however, and when Alastair Cook walks out to bat for England one last time at the Oval later this week, it will feel like the end of an era.
Just 33, the sort of age when many great batsmen have found a second wind to push their sails, Alastair Cook could have obviously chosen to stay on a little longer. After all, though Cook the batsman and Cook the slip fielder have found the going tough over the last year or two, England has continued to repose faith in Cook the Institution.
Being an opening batsman in Test cricket ranks among the toughest job in professional sport. It can quietly consume the best in the business. Cook, who has done the job for more than a decade with uncommon alacrity and uncompromising clarity of purpose, can, therefore, walk away with his head held high.