Cook settles into life after captaincy
It wouldn't count as relaxation in most people's books, but then, most people aren't readjusting to life after the England captaincy. Last month, Alastair Cook was leading his country to victory in Bangladesh; up until Wednesday, when he linked up with his Essex colleagues at Chelmsford, he was patrolling the fields of his girlfriend's family farm in Woburn until 11pm at night, helping with the lambing season and reflecting on the end of an eventful period of his career.
"It's very physical, because you're on your feet all day, but it's different physical," said Cook. "I do enjoy it because it's so different. Whether you're sticking your hand up a prolapsed lamb, or driving a tractor, it's an escape, and it's something interesting, about which I knew nothing when I first started. I like hard work and being outside, and I love my dog, so it suits me down to the ground. It keeps things fresh, and it's a mental relaxation."
Change is, as they say, as good as a rest. Which is just as well, because it's the last break that Cook's going to get for a while. Once the international season gets underway in May, he and his England colleagues will be on the go virtually non-stop until the end of the World Cup next April - which is part of the reason, of course, why Andrew Strauss was handed the sabbatical that led to Cook's stand-in role in Bangladesh. It's all left him with plenty to ponder while driving his tractor across the fields of Bedfordshire.
"I look back with fond memories," he said, after marshalling a maximum five wins out of five in a tricky taster tour. "To captain a Test for England, to win my first Test in charge, to win a series, to win a one-day series ... there's nothing more we could have done in terms of results, so I'm proud that we did all that, and it opened my eyes to what captaincy is really like."
Decked out in his now rarely-sported Essex colours, Cook looks and talks like a man who's grown in stature in the past few weeks. He's returned from Bangladesh with subtle changes to his demeanour, not least a greater willingness to expand on his thoughts in interviews, which in seasons past tended towards the abrupt, if not downright banal. It's one of many reasons he is grateful for the brief experience of life at the helm.
"It was probably a good place to have started out," he said. "In Bangladesh, we didn't have all the media and the external stuff that you get back in England. You can't avoid it back home, but in Bangladesh you almost have to go looking for it. But it gave me a good insight into what Straussy does, and I feel as though as if he was to get injured, I'd be in a far better position to do it, and that's beneficial.
"It also showed me what I needed to do to improve," he added. "Not when or if I get the captaincy full-time, but if I simply want to be a better leader in whatever I do. I'm still very inexperienced in terms of game-time out in the middle, but I definitely think I will get better at that, because from the beginning of the five weeks until now, I trust my decision-making better. Without a doubt, I'm nowhere near the finished article, but I know a little bit more about it, and I've come back with stuff to work on away from cricket, which I'll do with the right people."
One aspect of the whole experience which will require little tinkering is Cook's batting form when in charge of the side. Like Strauss - and like his Essex mentor, Graham Gooch, for that matter - Cook thrived on the responsibility of leading from the front as captain and opening batsman. In seven visits to the crease in the course of the five internationals, he racked up 498 runs at 83 including a brace of fifties in the ODIs and a brace of hundreds in the Tests, a tally that will doubtless help persuade the selectors to return for another look one day.
"It was a step into the unknown in terms of how would it affect my batting," he said. "I tend to be laid back off the field - after cricket time I'm quite good at chilling out in the hotel room and trying not to think too much about it - but I was really pleased with how I managed to compartmentalise, and it showed that I can do both roles.
"It was important that I was made aware of that," he added, "and it was something that Andy [Flower] banged on about. He was always reminding me, 'this is batting time', and he never let up on that. When Goochy was in South Africa, he also kept on saying, 'make sure you keep concentrating on your batting every day'. It takes time to get better at managing [the balance] and I'm pleased that I could do it. I know that if I ever get asked to captain again, I can do it."
In terms of the nitty-gritty of the day job, Cook knows he is likely to encounter tougher opponents in the future, but will rarely have call the shots on less hospitable surfaces than the ones that were prepared at Dhaka and Chittagong. And while his tactics came in for some criticism, most notably during the second Test when Bangladesh's tailenders flogged his bowlers to all parts (including third man), he maintains that his decisions were vindicated in the final analysis.
"I don't think I got my tactics right all the time, but there was a method behind what I was trying to do," he said. "I still don't think people appreciated quite how flat those wickets were. As a batsman I wasn't complaining, but as a bowler or a captain, it was tough. And the way Bangladesh played, they were comfortable with men round the bat and the field in, but as soon as you cut off their attacking shots, they didn't like it.
"So it involved being defensive as a captain, and sitting and waiting, because you couldn't force it on those pitches. I felt my hands were a little bit tied, because usually when a new guy comes in you put two men round the bat and bring in a gully, but all of their players - even down to No.10 and 11 - were happy to hit our spinners over the top. Having one or two men back might have looked defensive, but because they didn't have a get-out shot, we felt we could control them."
Patience is a virtue that Cook has been cultivating on all fronts of late - with his batting, in his captaincy, and of course, down on the farm, where the experience of bringing new life into the world on a nightly basis is a pretty sizeable leveller after his escapades of late.
"It's a day off for me now, because today is the first day I haven't been on the farm since I got back," he said. "Right now I'd just be trying to help out, but probably getting in the way, because you're never quite as good as the guys who do it all the time." Maybe not, but the value of experience can't be under-estimated.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo