Where do you start?
Alastair Cook made his Test debut in March of 2006. 12 and a half years ago. I was 30. Living in a St. Paul suburb. Still smoking cigarettes. Working at a toy company. Traveling too much. Working too hard. Life was okay then. Okay in that way that you don’t really recognize until it’s too late. I took the bus home everyday. And when the #61 would hit Snelling Ave. I would call my wife and just say “yep” and then she would get in the car with our dog, Murray, who would get excited the minute the phone rang, and come pick me up outside the diner in the strip mall next to one of those 24 hour fitness places.
Cricket was but a glint in my eye. Honestly, it wasn’t even that. It was, to me, nothing. Like it didn’t exist at all.
In the fall of that same year, Cook flew to Nagpur on short notice and hit a glorious 106 against India in the grueling heat to pull a draw out of a hat for England, batting in alien conditions with jet lag and an Indian attack that held no quarter.
And then time passed like falling leaves.
In April of 2007, I quit smoking. And everything changed. The whole world changed, for me. And I discovered cricket. Here was this game that I knew nothing about, that made no sense to me, but that I could wallow in completely, let it hold me in its arms. And somehow, despite every notion to the contrary, I was able to quit smoking. I followed the Cricket World Cup like an infant followed a set of keys. And while it was a hard, terrible time, I got better. Thanks to cricket. Everything changed, and for the better. For the way better. The whole world opened up, light poured in.
Later that year, December, I was still working at the Toy Company, living with my wife and dog, as Cook batted for 118 against Sri Lanka in Galle. His 7th Test hundred. And it saved the Test for England. He was only 22 years old. I was 31. And at the time it felt like life was just beginning for me, as it seemed for him, too, probably. He blocked and played off his back foot. He was handsome and charming, like a prince in a knit sweater in a field of green on the other side of the world.
In 2010 he scored in my opinion his most brilliant Test century. I don’t know. I think maybe it was because I was able to watch it live. But when no other England player could manage anything, he eked out this quiet little 110 against Pakistan at the Oval. And that would start this run for Cook that really made me a fan. His 235 against Australia at the Gabba, his 294 against India at Edgbaston. The April before the latter, I started this blog. I was working one of the worst jobs of my entire life. I remember that Edgebaston Test, watching him bat on and on and on and on, and somehow it made me feel as though everything was going to be okay.
And then there was that series in India in the fall of 2012. His 176 at Ahmedabad, his 122 in Mumbai, his 190 in Kolkata. That was maybe the hardest fall of my life. We had run away, and then we’d come home, and it was as if my life was being lived on the edge of a cliff, like everything could collapse and spill over the edge at any moment. But in the fall of that year, I graduated from college after spending most of my 20s and 30s as a college drop out. And through those rough days, I remember two or three times waking up, having gone to bed with Cook at the crease, and see that he had spent most of the night there, as I’d slept, on the other side of the world, in the heat and haze, playing off his back foot, keeping himself alive via his sheer force of will.
For Cook, though, after that, things started to drift. Hard years came, and hard years went. But, for me, life started to happen. I was offered my perfect job and then a year later, another perfect job. Things started to solidify. And, for the first time, be okay. There was a slight insurgence, for Cook, against New Zealand, with his 162 at Lords, and of course his 263 against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi and, his last Test century, his 244 at the MCG when the Ashes were already long lost. But, mostly, we felt we were all watching him struggle against the inevitable tide. That his hand had been played, and that it was his time to move on.
Then, today, Sept. 3, 2018, on what is traditionally the last day of summer in America, he retired. 12 years. 160 Tests. 12,254 runs. 32 centuries.
For so long, my entire life as a cricket fan, I had been used to seeing Cook in the England whites, the cross of St. George over his heart. He was never hurt, or dropped, or sick. He was just always there, through every England Test. And now, after the last Test against India, all of a sudden he won’t be there. I’ve watched him bat in India, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia. I would turn on the cricket and there he would be. Opening for England. With his strong jaw and shock of black hair, handsomer than any devil. And sometimes he would bat for minutes, and sometimes he would bat for days, but no matter what, he was always there.
But, now, he won’t be. From the 22 year old on debut against India when I was a year away from following the game, to yesterday against India at Southhampton. From the Toy Company to the public radio station. College, and dead dogs, and divorce. Through it all: Cook has been there. And later this year in Sri Lanka when England’s openers walk out in the heat and haze, it won’t be Alastair Cook. It will be someone else. And that thought makes me almost intolerably sad. For me, as a cricket fan, considering when it all started, England is Cook, and Cook is England. But. Now. No more. For good or for bad, that’s the new reality.
Life is change. That’s what my mother always says. But sometimes there’s too much change. Sometimes you want that old cricketer who’s not even that old to give it one more year, because too many other things have changed and you want a few things to stay the same. You want that old cricketer to trade in those aching joints and walk out into the sun just a few more times. Sometimes there’s too much change. I’ll close my eyes tonight and when I open them in the morning the light will be soft and to my left, like it never has been before. And for a few seconds I will wonder where I am. But then I will remember. And it’s a dark, hard moment, that remembering. So I wish Cook had hung on for a little longer. Just one more series even. Given me a morning like I remember. Those mornings back in 2012. When I’d wake up with the dog and take him outside and look at my phone and know that some kid from Gloucestshire had batted the whole time I’d been sleeping.
But. Never again. Just like so many other things.
Life is change.