Sir Alastair Cook is thinking back to that golden day last summer when he made a century against India in his last Test innings.
When the Oval crowd rose to him for a prolonged ovation in one of the most emotional and memorable farewells any cricketer can have experienced.
‘All my friends and family were there that day,’ said cricket’s latest knight of the realm.
Sir Alatair Cook says he is enjoying life after retiring from international cricket at the age of 34
Cook retired from international cricket after amassing almost 12,500 runs in 161 Tests
‘They hadn’t come on the first day. Mum and dad, people from my childhood, farmers. You can’t describe it. It was like someone was looking after me.
‘I’m sure the cricketing gods will have payback at some stage but for five days, with Jimmy Anderson getting his record wicket to complete the win, it was perfect.
‘You could say I might have taken that last catch off Jimmy for it to be even more perfect, but I’d have probably dropped it anyway!
‘I look back now and I still can’t really believe it happened, especially as everyone knew that was my last Test. To produce an innings like that and to go out with people thinking you’re a better player than you are is a wonderful goodbye.’
Joe Root chats with his predecessor Cook (right) during a break from Test action last month
He was a player good enough to score almost 12,500 runs in his 161 Tests, with 33 hundreds, and is now having breakfast in St Lucia with Sportsmail. Cook is finally on the other side of the fence, having dipped his toe in the media waters with BBC Radio and The Sunday Times.
‘I was in the press box in Antigua and it struck me how detached I felt from the game,’ said Cook. ‘That was really strange, but in one way you need to be because you have to say what you see without that tunnel vision you have as a player.
‘Jonathan Agnew is a good person to learn off because he’s a brilliant broadcaster and the calmness and clarity with which he does things is a real skill.
‘The challenge of learning this is great. The family farm plays such a big part in my life and I genuinely love going back there. In some ways I’d like to spend every day there, but there would be a big hole in my life if I didn’t stay involved in cricket.
‘I really don’t know what the future holds, but this has made me realise how much I enjoy talking about the game.’
It is a very relaxed Sir Alastair — ‘it feels a bit odd when people call me that’ — who is contemplating a new life with no regrets over the timing of his farewell, aged 33, at a time when he was still clearly good enough to dig deep.
‘It would have been nice to get through to this summer’s Ashes, but unfortunately I couldn’t get there,’ he said. ‘You can’t just hang on to do stuff. The commitment and desire you need to be at the top is extraordinary and I’d been hammered enough times to know this was the time to go.
Cook retired in September after achieving the sixth highest number of Test runs in history
Cook stresses that he doesn’t miss international Test cricket after watching England struggle
‘The India series wasn’t the only reason I retired. It was the culmination of 18 months where things had probably changed in my life. I’d started questioning that absolute dedication and desire, and I’m talking one or two per cent I always needed and had.
‘So it was time to look in the mirror and realise I’d had my lot. To stay at the top you have to be totally driven, but something had changed. It’s hard to pinpoint it, but it had.
‘In some ways it was sad because I was living the dream trying to win games of cricket for England. What better thing can there be than that, but no one plays for ever. I can sit back now and think, “What a way to go”.’
Two weeks after that game at the Oval, Cook’s third child, first son Jack, came along and then he learned of his knighthood. Now he is this year’s overwhelming winner of our Ian Wooldridge Award for sporting excellence and, most importantly, doing things the right way, with the Corinthian spirit the great Woolers always so admired.
Cook continued: ‘The Oval was the bookmark and then to receive a knighthood. I can’t even begin to try to put it in words. It’s such a huge honour to be bestowed on anyone, let alone a bloke from Essex, so I’m very proud. The Wooldridge award will probably be my last honour now!’
He has certainly been thrown in in at the media deep end, watching England’s Antigua horror show, and is hoping for something much better in Saturday’s final Test.
‘There was no desire to go out and bat, that’s for sure,’ he said of watching England suffer. ‘It’s something you forget very quickly.
‘I wouldn’t say it was an unplayable wicket, but it was tricky and there were some balls where you could get hit and you really needed to be up for that challenge. If I’d been there I’m not sure I’d have been 100 per cent on it and if that’s the case you can’t do it.
‘I’m talking about that extra desire, the little bit in the mind that separated me from a lot of people. In that last year or so, I was sneaking back into being a normal cricketer and whenever I tried to battle that I couldn’t find anything to help me.
Cook was rather critical of England’s lack of preparation before first Test with West Indies
The ex-England captain after scoring a century against West Indies in Bridgetown in 2009
‘One ball in the second innings reared at Rory Burns off Kemar Roach. He dropped his hands and played it beautifully and I remembered how much your heart would be going in those situations.
‘Put yourself in his position. He would have been thinking, “That was quick and it could have cleaned me up”. There’s a big difference being in that situation and being the person sat there watching with a cup of tea. You can forget very quickly.’
Cook found it easy to distance himself from former team-mates. ‘I wasn’t sure if it would be awkward with the players, but it wasn’t,’ he said.
‘On pure logistical terms, our hotel was an hour away from the team in Antigua, so I didn’t see much of them.
‘It’s a transition everyone goes through and it’s a nicer one when you’ve pretty much achieved everything you’d like.
‘Without sounding arrogant, I achieved a lot more than I thought I would do.’
He is backing England to hit back here and next summer. ‘The odds of winning 3-0 in Sri Lanka and then what has happened in the two Tests here would have been enormous,’ he said.
‘Of course I feel for Joe Root. As the leader of the team, the pressure when things aren’t going well can be tough. It’s part of the rich tapestry of captaincy, but the bottom line is if they win the Ashes this will be forgotten.
‘At the moment people are giving English cricket a slating, but in eight months they could have won the World Cup and Ashes and then it’s the greatest year ever.
‘West Indies have been far better than people thought they’d be. They’ve got a balanced attack for these conditions and they’ve found a way with the bat. That’s what Test cricket is all about.’
But he knows it is the top order and replacing a certain Alastair Cook that remains England’s biggest problem.
‘It hasn’t just been these two games,’ he said. ‘It has been a number of years now.
‘Certainly some of the pitches we’ve had for Tests in England have made batting in the top order incredibly hard. And whether it’s the balls, the pitches or the time of year matches are played, it’s a similar story in domestic cricket.
England have struggled for openers since Cook retired from international Test cricket
Cook celebrates with close friend Jimmy Anderson on the final day of his last Test last year
‘We’re seeing a generation of cricketers who’ve been brought up on Twenty20, so this perfect storm has developed and it’s a case of, “How do we get out of it?”
‘Players, coaches and administrators have to fight back because it’s becoming increasingly hard at the top and some very good English players want to drop down the order because that’s where you can score runs.
‘So Rory Burns deserves a chance because he has consistently scored runs in the championship as an opener and not just at the Oval, either. He looks the part to me.
‘But we are also in a time where instant success is demanded. You see Joe Denly getting one game on a dodgy wicket after all those years waiting and people say he’s not the man for the role. The selectors have obviously seen something in him, so give him a chance.’
Cook will continue playing for his beloved Essex this year to give something back and simply because he wants to experience county cricket again with his friends.
Let’s say he scores a mountain of runs while England’s top order continue to flounder without him. The clamour for his return for England in an Ashes summer would be intense.
He can see the question coming a mile off and smiles. ‘You can never say never on anything, but I can pretty much say never on this,’ he said. ‘Like anything, you don’t quite know, but at the moment being out of the side has made me a far better player than I ever was! Let’s leave it like that.’