English public love a humble hero and Alastair Cook has joined the likes of Gareth Southgate and Justin Rose as the nation’s favourites
IT’S THE normal ones the English public truly appreciate.
Not the flashy ones, the mouthy ones, the larger-than-life ‘characters’, the geniuses or the hell-raisers.
It’s those who work damned hard and make the most of modest talent.
Those who get on with it and don’t shout about it. The single-minded, consistent sorts.
Those who, to the untrained eye, might even seem boring.
It’s the ordinary sportsmen and women who dedicate themselves to achieving extraordinary things.
And as the English summer drew to a close with its final ball of Test cricket, what a season it has been for that quiet, unassuming majority.
Also for Justin Rose, now No 1 golfer on the planet and one of his game’s most thoroughly decent blokes.
For Gareth Southgate and his grounded World Cup squad, who proved English footballers could be both successful and likeable, when achieving even one of those two aims had seemed impossible.
And for Dina Asher-Smith, the former London Olympics box-carrier who emerged as a world-class sprinter, while capturing hearts and minds at the Euros.
In the media we still enjoy the tantrums of Roy Keane and Serena Williams — who doesn’t love to rubber-neck at somebody spectacularly losing it? But out there among the paying public, there’s a fanfare for the normal man.
An appreciation of the all-round good egg. A public who love nothing more than good things happening to good people.
In such angry and divisive times, a day like Monday at The Oval — where Cook scored a century in his final England innings before a vast adoring crowd — felt like this nation’s saving grace.
It was no display of post-Diana schmaltz when Cook’s audience offered him nine standing ovations in a day. The mutual appreciation between Cook and his public was wholly authentic.
After play, cricket writers presented Cook with 33 bottles of beer, one for each Test century (it was going to be 32 but they had to hurriedly rustle up another), each with a message from a different writer about each innings.
Cook seemed genuinely touched — just as he was by a compilation of video messages from fellow pros arranged by the PCA players’ union.
On it, Anderson delivers a bland tribute, pretends the camera is off and accuses Cook of “banging on about farming this, farming that — it’s lambing season. Who cares mate? Bore off”.
As well as a dry wit, Anderson is also a master craftsman. Without the raw attributes most fearsome in a fast bowler — express pace and towering height — he knuckled down and became the world’s best.
If Cook and Anderson were your next door neighbours or work colleagues, you’d be happy.
Kevin Pietersen, the brilliant, flashy, insufferable anti-Cook, less so.
On the other side of the pond from Cook’s heroics, Rose became the first Englishmen in six years to reach world No 1 level due to a phenomenal level of consistency.
Rose has been a favourite among fellow pros and golfing galleries since winning the Silver Medal for best amateur while finishing fourth at the 1998 Open, aged 17.
When he won the US Open on Father’s Day and dedicated his Major win to his late dad Ken, there could have been no more popular winner. And when so many leading golfers — cocooned and cash-obsessed — snubbed the reintroduction of their sport to the Olympics, Rose cherished his experience in the Rio athletes’ village and put his heart and soul into winning gold.
Had they been footballers, Rose and Cook would have been the sort of characters welcomed by Southgate.
After ditching many more marketable players — Wayne Rooney, Jack Wilshere and Joe Hart — Southgate kept telling his squad they were the boys from Burnley and Barnsley and Bolton.
When Kieran Trippier was told he was the third most creative player at the World Cup after Neymar and Kevin De Bruyne, he replied, ‘Not bad for a Bury lad’.
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And the public smiled at blokes who didn’t forget where they came from no matter how far they went. They enjoy the Premier League but they know it is largely a matter of which club has attracted the wealthiest foreign investor.
The World Cup reminded them what they really love about football.
After that, there was Asher-Smith — at 22 destined to be an English sporting great of the next decade.
When London’s 2012 organisers sloganised ‘inspiring a generation’, this was the sort of starry-eyed local kid they were after.
This was true Olympic legacy, not a white-elephant stadium gifted to a low-rent football club.
It wasn’t just that Asher-Smith won in Berlin, it was that look of genuine wonderment as she crossed the line — a look which never left her face as she realised how she’d sparked a revival of public interest in her troubled sport.
We’re proud to have Asher-Smith represent us, as we’re proud of Cook Anderson, Rose and Southgate’s crew.
We’re proud because they’ve made the best of themselves. We’re proud because we’ve recognised the best of ourselves in them.
Proud because each of them still feels as if they’re one of our own.