The other day I noted down the order in which I enjoyed watching the England top seven bat, taking them each at their best. It went: Pietersen, Morgan, Bell, Strauss, Prior, Trott, Cook. Then I began wondering why.
The first three are pretty obvious. Pietersen remains the most extraordinary batsman to have played for England in twenty years. Morgan is an avatar - the first player of the T20 era to track those skills upwards into Test cricket. He's got the same ice-bound persona as Steve Waugh too. And although the ghost of the Sherminator still shines above him like an aura, Bell has the chronometer timing of Alec Stewart and a technique more classical than Vaughan.
Then Strauss. You've gotta love Strausser. Matt Prior, the closest thing the team has to a village blacksmith, duffing teams up either side of tea. Plus the vast and perverse pleasure of watching Trott - obsessive compulsions, rituals, rehearsals, prods, thuds and pushes forever and ever amen.
Which leaves Cook. The two single most euphoric moments of the last Ashes series for me were waking up and logging on to cricinfo [ritualistic superstition of my own, had to be done before the TV was switched on] at the end of day four at Brisbane [309-1] and day one at Melbourne [157-0], and those were both down in no small part to his relentless accumulation. And yet, and yet...
Cook is certainly a throwback to the age of Boycott, a grinder who will break a bowler on the wheel if he can. There's something even earlier about his anodyne good looks, pre-war maybe in their absolute Englishness, and also in his deeply-concealed inner life. Everything he lets slip about his time outside of the game - the long-term sweetheart, the joys of the family farm - is simple, yet batting is complex. There must be something more.
To compare him with Boycott is not really apt, but there is a comparison there. Cook's runs are bloody-minded, disciplined, concentrated. He and Geoffrey are, if not the slowest, then among the slowest players in the team. Yet around Boycott, war raged. It was an almost permanent state, too, a deep and scarring psychodrama that seethed through his career. It was riveting.
Leo Mckinstry wrote a superlative and riotous biography about Geoffrey called Boycs. It has story after story, anecdote after anecdote, moment after moment that rarely fail to astonish. It's impossible to imagine a similar book about Cook. When I think about Boycott batting, I remember most the cover drive with the checked follow-through, and of course that impenetrable forward push. Cook is harder to grasp. He has one really thrilling shot, his throat-high pull-hook [how Cook-like that it falls between the two]. Beyond that, there's a telling square cut, and a checked cover drive of his own, plus the push off the legs. It's hard to keep any of it in the memory.
So Cook is an enigma, but a silent one. I'm glad he's there but I don't yearn for him to stay. He's a very hard player to get a hold on, a vortex, but one we can stare into with a strange kind of pleasure that can't yet be defined as enjoyment.