'I became the best player I could have become' - Alastair Cook
Alastair Cook says that he will retire from international cricket at the end of the forthcoming Oval Test knowing that he managed to dredge every ounce out of his ability.
Cook, who will retire after an England record 161 Test appearances, said that his decision to stand down had come during a six-month period in which he felt that he had mislaid the mental edge that had carried him to more than 12,000 Test runs over a 12-year career.
"It's hard to put it into words, but over the last six months, there've been signs in my mind that this was going to happen," Cook told reporters at The Oval. "I told Rooty [Joe Root] before the game [at the Ageas Bowl], then told Trevor [Bayliss] during the game."
"For me, I've always had that mental edge, I've always been mentally incredibly tough, and that edge had gone," he added. "That stuff which I'd found easy before was just wasn't quite there, and for me that was the biggest sign."
Asked if he had considered asking for a sabbatical to reassess his game after an extraordinary 158 Test appearances in a row, Cook insisted that burn-out was not the issue that he had been contending with, in spite of averaging less than 20 in nine Tests in 2018.
"It did cross my mind briefly, as the decision became clear in my mind, but if you are looking over the last two or three years, I haven't played a huge amounts of games, and I've never felt that getting on another plane has been the struggle. You can have six months off and come back, but I still don't think it would have been there.
"You ask people about [retirement] along the way, and they said that when you know, you know. And for me that was so true."
The rest of the team was informed of his decision the aftermath of England's 60-run victory over India at the Ageas Bowl, a result which ensured a series win against the No.1 Test team and allowed Cook to go public with his decision ahead of a dead rubber in the final match.
"In this day and age, it's very hard to keep anything quiet," he said. "If it was 2-2 I would have had to keep my mouth shut. But when you do media and are asked questions, it's hard to constantly lie, to be brutally honest.
"I was a couple of beers in and I needed to be, otherwise I'd have cried more than I actually did," he added. "But I managed to hold it together. At the end of the game, I just said it might be good news for some, but sad for others, but it's time. I've done my bit and, if picked, the next game will be my last game. That was all I said.There was a bit of silence, then Mo said something, and we got on with it and had a nice evening in the changing room."
The confirmation of Cook's impending retirement was then announced on Monday morning, leading to a wealth of tributes across the cricket media.
"It's a bit surreal," Cook added. "One of my friends rang to check I was still alive, because everyone had been talking as if I've died. It's obviously nice to hear so many nice words said about you. For the last couple of days I've been back at home and hadn't seen much of it, until I let myself have a look last night."
The eulogies were richly deserved, given how much Cook had given to England's cause in the course of his record-breaking Test career. Inevitably, he picked out his central role in England's victories in Australia in 2010-11 and India in 2012-13 as his finest hours.
"You can't really look past those two away series," he said. "That was the best I could play, and in my career as a whole, I can look back and say I became the best player I could have become. That means quite a lot to me. I've never been the most talented cricketer, and I don't pretend I was, but I definitely got everything out of my ability."
Cook admitted that his lowest ebb had come in the midst of the 2014 summer, when England lost first to Sri Lanka and then went 1-0 down against India, and all against the backdrop of the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, a situation that Cook admitted he wished had been handled differently.
"The KP affair was a tough year, absolutely no doubt about that," he said. "The fallout of that wasn't good for English cricket or for me, but I was involved in that decision without being the bloke that made the final decision.
"I think that's when it was real tough but I didn't throw the towel in," he added. "I still believe I was the best man for the job and the right man to be England captain at that time. I could have taken the easy option and thrown the towel in, but I didn't, and the team got the reward with the Ashes in 2015."
Asked if he was the last of a dying breed of Test specialists, Cook replied: "I think naturally kids are going to be more attracted by the razzmatazz of T20. I've seen it in the youngsters in the Essex team, their attacking game is better than their defensive game, and that is fact.
"I'm not sure I'm the last of a dying breed but there are cricketers of my ilk who are naturally suited to the red ball rather than white ball. The kids have the diet of T20. We played T20 when we were younger, but we still built an innings in the first five overs, rather than whack it over the keepers' head third ball."
As for his ambitions for the final Test of his career, Cook added: "It would be fantastic [to bow out on a high], but it would be great for England to win most importantly - 4-1 sounds better than 3-2. If I can play a good innings, that would be fantastic."