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May 15, 2007
It's a dull grey Thursday at Chelmsford. Alastair Cook is on the pitch taking part in a photoshoot at his home Essex ground, all in the name of work.
In exactly a week's time he could be trotting down the Lord's pavilion steps with Andrew Strauss to face West Indies, that intent gaze no doubt etched onto his ever-serious face. You know his look: the face of a thousand bland TV interviews, of the media-trained top-class sportsman.
But today... well, today the seriousness has been replaced by a broad beam; then again there are two naked women flanking him. And there are more surprises in store. After the shoot - for a charity calendar - he reveals himself to be, contrary to the anodyne Henman-alike character on the small screen, naturally charming and surprisingly engaging. It's all a little surreal.
More unexpectedly still, he actually enjoys talking to the media and is cheerful as we sit down in the pavilion. "I don't normally get to do interviews," he says, with enthusiasm, while chomping away on some sandwiches from M&S. "I'm quite laidback." I'd noticed. Anyway, it's not as if he reads pieces about him - then there is a pause as he realises what he's said. "I do, but I don't pay too much attention!"
But what is he doing at Chelmsford on his day off? As a centrally contracted player Cook's busy enough without arriving to be snapped leaning on a lawnmower or dressed as an umpire while the two models Emma and Natalie, painted in the ECB colours, giggle suggestively. He finds it all brilliant, though. "Having to stare at naked women they didn't have to twist my arm too much!"
In the background, the Essex PR, Greg, shakes his head gently. Unfazed, Cook merely clarifies: "Better being honest than trying to make up some rubbish!" You can't argue. And of course it's all in a good cause, for the CHASE Ben Hollioake Fund, set up to remember Ben, Adam's brother, who died in car crash in 2002. Cook didn't know Ben, but he met Adam last year, and he's happy to do his bit to help.
|It was hard seeing the lads out there and wanting to be there|
He's a breath of fresh air, in the way that his batting breezed new life into England stage the day he strode onto the international stage in India in 2006, making 60 and 104 not out in his first two innings. But importantly, he's confident, not arrogant - and he feels he's far from the finished product.
"I think you always have something to prove, always to yourself, especially at the start of the season, with a new coach coming in." Three first-class centuries to kick off this season weren't enough proof for him, then. "Shame there wasn't a double hundred," he flashes back. When pressed he does stretch to "I feel as if I'm hitting the ball quite cleanly". He'd done more than enough to keep his England spot, particularly given Michael Vaughan's absence.
It's not just about proving, though, it's about constantly improving: "Your place is never certain." That's the hallmark of a future champion, that Warne-like desire to learn. Then again, Cook actually did have to improve.
The winter wasn't a high point: he was found out Down Under - with just one century, at Perth - and then left out of the one-day set-up from January. He admits missing the World Cup in particular was tough. "It was hard seeing the lads out there and wanting to be there. I didn't watch too much. I just tried to get away from it and do my own thing."
That thing was focussing on his shots on and around off-stump. "I'd be stupid not to. The Aussies got me out that way." Still, he didn't go overboard on correctional work: "It's as much mental as it is technical." He's candid, though, about his need to improve on certain aspects. "Practising catching a ball always helps!" he says, alluding to his less-than-perfect fielding. But again he's worked hard and it's all made him tougher.
He's hungry, too, for more bites at the one-day cherry. In his two ODIs to date he showed an unexpected aggression, but he insists it's part of his natural armour. "I've always got the shots. In Test match cricket you've got time to bat. You don't want to play an aggressive shot and get out. In one-day cricket you've got to be more aggressive."
He wasn't always so calm. "I was a fiery youngster," he says, as if he's now way beyond his 22 years. (He does look older, though, with his square jaw and mature frame, and he acts it, too. Only, it's no act.) "I had a bit of a temper. That's where you've got to learn to bat. Everyone makes mistakes, you play and miss. It's playing the next ball. That's Goochie's thing, play the next ball."
That's Graham Gooch, of course, head batting coach at Essex - who he won't be seeing much of if he continues with England. Happily, though, he's just been reunited with two old acquaintances, England's new coaches. He can't wait to work with Peter Moores, who he knows from Academy and England A days (Moores recommended him for the India call-up) - "I know he will put his heart and soul into it" - and then there's the assistant, Andy Flower, who he played with at Essex.
Flower provided an example of never-say-die on the pitch and the pair shared many successful partnerships. "It was the way you watched him batting at the other end and he wouldn't get out, so you thought you couldn't get out, either".
England's first challenge in their brave new world is West Indies, about whom he's guarded, "They're massive wounded animals". He's warier still of India, whose bowlers he played so well in his debut series. "They really have world-class players." Not to mention a point to prove. "That will be a tough battle." He will be battle-ready.
He's looking no further, though - the India series is far, far away in his mind as it is, so there's not much room for talking about him as a future England captain. "You can get too ahead of yourself. That would be great but it's not something I'm going to chase. I'd rather keep my place in the England side and try to win for England." England, as ever, will keep expecting.
Shorter tours don't allow you time to get into form, and domestic cricket isn't demanding enough