Captain Cook displays a raregenerosity of spirit

At the end of the Rajkot Test, England’s most experienced Test batsman and captain Alastair Cook made a remarkable statement. Speaking of his opening partner, the debutant Haseeb Hameed, he said, “He was pushing me close to retirement when we walked off yesterday: a 19-year-old not only out-batted me but scored quicker than me and made it look easier than me.”

Captains talking up promising youngsters is not unusual in sport, it is part of the job description. But such generosity of spirit is rare; Cook is clearly a man secure in his own skin. For an all-time great from his country to pay such a lavish tribute to a boy playing his first Test says as much about Hameed as about Cook himself.

By scoring his 30th century, Cook overtook Don Bradman; by drawing the Test, he brought his team on a par with the No. 1 side in the discussions that followed; England’s defeat in Bangladesh will not be forgotten, but the scars are healing rapidly; after five days of tough, unrelenting competition, Cook gave his team cause for hope. And yet, he found the time (and the words) to celebrate the arrival of Hameed. The last England batsman who evoked such expectations was Joe Root, and before that, it was Cook himself, both in India.

Cook, the only England player with over 10,000 Test runs, is just 31 years old. There is a suggestion of baton-passing in his praise of Hameed, even if the captain is not abdicating just yet. There are promises to keep and miles to go. There is the matter of some of Sachin Tendulkar’s records, for one.

Greatness recognising greatness

When a young Len Hutton was coming through the system in Yorkshire, Herbert Sutcliffe, the established opening batsman said, “I am only setting up these records for Hutton to break them.” The Cook-Hameed parallel is too obvious to deserve comment.

When the great Australian batsman Victor Trumper was 19, Ranji, who was touring Australia then, remarked after seeing him play for New South Wales that “he will be a very great batsman at no very distant date”. Trumper’s scores in that match were 5 and 0. It was greatness recognising greatness.

India’s two best batsmen in the 1970s and 80s were Sunil Gavaskar and his brother-in-law Gundappa Vishwanath. When Sachin Tendulkar was 14, Dilip Vengsarkar told me that the teenager had the defence of one and the strokes of the other and would finish as a combination of the two. Vengsarkar was not a man to exaggerate, but I thought he had just begun to then.

Cook’s praise is, equally, the lament of the ageing master. The painter who sees a younger man do easily what took him a lifetime to learn, the novelist who watches the world pay obeisance to a younger writer for his wit and control: the same things he was being lauded for a couple of generations earlier, the musician who needs to practise that bit harder to remain at the top. It is the cycle of life, a cycle that turns faster in sport than in any other sphere.

Yet it is a cycle difficult to come to terms with. Former players are fond of saying how they played for the joy of the game rather than for the money. Many are convinced things were better in their time, the fast bowlers bowled faster, the spinners were craftier and the batsmen were sounder. When these same players were young, they were up against an earlier generation saying the same things about their game. And so on backwards in time.

Cook’s maturity — of a piece with declaring at Rajkot only after eliminating the chances of a defeat — and his display of unselfishness and magnanimity are lessons that are as important to the modern cricketer as his gritty batsmanship.

Much to do

Hameed, who looks startlingly like a younger version of the British actor Alan Cumming, has even more miles to go. In Australia, there was a hex on anyone being compared to Don Bradman. Ian Craig, Norman O’Neill, Doug Walters were all thus compared, but fell short of greatness.

There is no evidence of a similar curse on any England batsman being compared to Geoff Boycott. Hameed’s father and early coach Ismail, who played in the Bolton league was called “Boycott” for his technique. Hameed is thus “Baby Boycott”.

Geoff Boycott himself has been generous. "I am flattered. It is a compliment to me that his father showed him videos of me and wanted him to watch my technique,” he has said.

Hameed will have the international spotlight trained on him for many years now. He will excite, disappoint, inspire, frustrate, dishearten, motivate, thrill fans around the world as he both succeeds and fails at the crease.

But it is doubtful if he will receive a more heart-warming response from a mate or a better compliment than the one from his captain at the end of his debut Test.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 5:09:47 AM |

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