One didn’t realise that there also is a scriptwriter when it comes to cricket and the many glorious matches that have been played over a period of time. Most successful films have a happy ending; a ‘must write’ situation for any scriptwriter. As far as Indian films go, the struggles of the hero (or protagonist you may please) ends with his slaying the dragon of defeat and coming out victorious.
Alastair Cook would never have expected the kind of ending of his outstanding career when he left his home in Bedfordshire to face the Indians in his last Test match at the Oval. Here was a man, who had fought many tough wars, poised to play his final innings at a time when he was struggling with the bat. The ‘Chef’ as his fellow countrymen called him had been tormented by the Indian bowlers – starting with Ravichandran Ashwin and later by Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah. It’s never easy when a batsman is out of form, especially if he happens to be an opener - the first one to face the red cherry. England too, isn’t the best place in the cricketing world to pad up and walk out with confidence when you haven’t had a decent start in seven previous innings.
Unlike his seniors Steve Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar (their final Test matches were much celebrated affairs), Cook – England’s highest scorer in Test cricket - walked out to bat at the Oval in quiet dignity. Just the way he had done for his country in 160 Test matches during his glittering career. The first day at the Oval did see a few fans dressed in Chef costumes, as a tribute, and there was a certain, and very classy, atmosphere in one of the oldest cricket venues in the world just about hinting of the fact that it was the last Test of a man who was thrust into Test cricket by pure chance.
The Essex opener, who was called up for national duty while touring the Caribbean with the England A team, was to play the same country against whom he had scored a 60 and 104 on his Test debut at Nagpur. You could have the most Test runs scored by anyone in your country, the most Test appearances as well as have led your country for the most times, against your name but when your form is like that of Cook before he walked out to bat at the Oval, playing a match that has a big emotional value can be really tough.
Form, the say, is a fickle animal. The lack of it can turn a raging Tiger into a docile Lamb. One experienced an interesting episode when one travelled with the Cricket Club of India (CCI) team on a cricket tour to Australia in 1981-82. Australia were hosting a top quality (in terms of bowling attack) Pakistan as well as the mighty West Indians captained by Clive Lloyd. Greg Chappell, considered one of the top three batsmen on that era, the other two being Sunil Gavaskar and Sir Vivian Richards, was struggling with the bat.
The ’82 Test series against the West Indies was, probably, the worst for Greg in his Test career, with scores (even in the One Day matches) reading like the country code of a phone number. The CCI team was fortunate to bump into the legendary Sir Garfield Sobers who shared a flight with us from Melbourne to Adelaide.
Sharing a seat next to the great man on flight, one asked Sir Garry what Chappell should be doing to get out of the rut he was in. “He needs to get to the basics,” replied Sir Garry with his trademark toothy smile. “When you’re out of form, you need to get back to the grammar - the A, B and C of batting,” he signed off.
It is always a great performance - particularly in difficult times - that separates the men from the boys. When Cook walked out to bat against the Indians, one could see the steely resolve in his eyes, the determination writ big on his face as he faced the Indian bowlers. Playing and missing the swinging ball, he batted as though his life depended on it scoring 71 and 147 in his last two Test match innings.
What set him apart was that he wasn’t in the best of form in one of the most important innings of his life but came out right on top with stellar (and match winning) scores to win the player of the match. In short, to use Sir Garry’s words, Cook got back to the basics, followed the fundamental grammar of the game to play, what can now be referred to as a fabulous innings in his last hurrah.
Cook’s humility and quiet dignity was apparent even as he walked out of the field of play for the last time in his Test career. He kept gesturing to James Anderson, who had overtaken Glenn McGrath as the highest wicket taker among pacemen, to lead the team out after the end of a successful series. His body language, at the post match interview, was one of a shy achiever one that had ticked all the right boxes through his playing days with genuine humility. What one saw was completely bereft of drama and pomp that has become an unfortunate part of what we know as the Gentleman’s game.
Cook, probably, is one of the last of the old world cricketers who played the game the way it was meant to be played. With efficacy in manner and quiet dignity, Cooks’ ‘farewell’ was one that would make an old world cricketer proud of the way it was handled. Cook, of course, put the icing on the delicious cake making it memorable with his super performance and dignified manner. Coming back to the ‘script’ it was one that would have made a screenplay writer proud. To bow out of the game for one last time - scoring a century on debut and final innings, winning the player of the match along with your team winning the series with aplomb is something any cricketer would dream of. Not only did Cook’s dream come true, it also was a great showcase for what Test cricket stands for in today’s commercial milieu.
The last words, after the match, was uttered by the legendary Sunil Gavaskar who also spoke about the script. The finest opening batsman the modern world has seen said that the script, though written well could have ended with “Mohammed Shami (the last Indian batsman) caught Alastair Cook, bowled James Anderson!”
(The writer is a former Cricket Club of India captain and Bombay University cricketer)