Alastair Cook’s England retirement is immaculate timing typical of an astute man

Will Macpherson
Evening Standard
Getty Images
Getty Images

Ever since resigning the captaincy 18 months ago, Alastair Cook has said he would wake up one morning and know that the time was right to step away altogether.

That feeling, that moment, has arrived. This week at the Oval an era ends, and Cook, England’s greatest runscorer and century-maker, will retire after 161 Test matches - 159 of them in succession. That is one of the many remarkable records he holds and, you sense, one of the least likely to be broken.

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Let the tributes flow in. It is a nice time to go out. He informed his team-mates last night, in the warm glow that follows a superb series win. Cook will be the first to admit he has had a poor final summer, so arrives at the site of one of his greatest highs with low expectations and a chance to relax. The end will come against the team he started against, against whom he has enjoyed some great highs: the debut century in 2006, the 294 in 2011 when his runs played such a key role in propelling England to the top of the rankings, and of course the triumphant tour of 2012.

He may not be the player, the churner, he was then, but he is still capable of remarkable innings, as his two double centuries in 2017 show. Perhaps there is one last Daddy Hundred left. At least it brings to an end the circus of a search for a partner for him.

Sportsmen talk a lot about “going out on one’s own terms”. Not many get the privilege, but Cook has earned the right and been wise enough to time his run.

He was scarred by events in late 2014, when he was usurped as England’s ODI captain months from the World Cup at the end of a tortuous year during which his form dipped and his team was humiliated by an Ashes whitewash. Neither Kevin Pietersen that year nor Ian Bell 12 months on, both of whom Cook played 100 Tests alongside, were able to go out on their own terms.

Cook's career in numbers

Test runs scored by Alastair Cook - more than anyone else for England. Graham Gooch is next with 8,900

Test centuries - nine ahead of second-placed Kevin Pietersen. Of current team-mates Joe Root has the next most with 13

Tests played, more than any other Englishman. James Anderson is next on 142

Runs in the 2010-11 away Ashes win — at an average of 127. Only Wally Hammond scored more for England in an Ashes series (905 in 1928-29)

Still, Cook retires young. He is not 34 until Christmas Day and Graham Gooch, his mentor and the man closest to him in England’s Test run-scoring charts, made 5,154 Test runs after his 34th birthday.

His debut 12 years ago, and some of the players involved in it, feels as if it belongs to another era. The captain, Andrew Flintoff, has been a TV star for years. Picking the two players Cook made his debut with seems like a handy pub quiz question: Monty Panesar, the cult hero, and Ian Blackwell, the burly one-cap wonder who is now an umpire. Cook’s dash across the globe — from the Caribbean to Nagpur — for that debut, and the 60 and century that followed, are a key part from of his remarkable story. The only game he has missed since would have been his third, laid down by illness.

There is still hunger there, as shown by his decision to continue playing for Essex, but not enough to keep going in Test cricket. Do not underestimate quite how taxing an exercise that is: in the final six years of his career, you need more than two hands to count the number of opening partners for Cook the game has chewed up and spat out.

The captaincy years, from 2012 until the end of 2016, took their toll, but Cook has looked a man refreshingly relaxed since giving it up. As captain, he was not a speaker or statesman like his predecessor Andrew Strauss, nor an instinctive tactician like his regular opposite number Michael Clarke. There were some extreme highs and lows, and he could be prickly. The Pietersen sacking in 2014 was handled poorly by all parties, Cook included. He seems unlikely to follow former captains into the commentary box, and will instead head for a quieter life on the farm with his family; his third child is due imminently.

But, as with his batting, Cook made up for what he lacked in flair with determination, grit and skill. He has at once been a natural athlete - he has the right frame, and famously does not sweat - but is also very ungainly, as anyone who has seen him chase a ball to the boundary will attest. Still, his fitness is remarkable: the England support staff marvel at his continued untouchable status on the bleep test, despite the extraordinary physical fitness of younger men. They say this is partly due to the extraordinary amount of work he puts in, but also his extraordinary stubbornness.

Cook has been brave and astute in the timing of his departure. He could have clung on longer. But, even more than the epic innings (which he is still capable of) he was defined more by epic series, which he has not been capable of for some time. He laid the foundations for extraordinary away victories in places England had not won in since the 1980s: Australia in 2010/11 and in India in 2012, his first series as captain.

Many hoped Cook would continue to help England win the Ashes back next year, but his timing is immaculate. As he said when announcing the decision, he has given everything he has to give.

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