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Cricket news - Cook's journey of hopes, dreams and scaling more targets
Sam Cook couldn't quite believe it. There he was, in September of 2017, in the Edgbaston changing room, a 20 year-old fast-bowler at the end of just his second Championship match for Essex, celebrating the county's first four-day title for 25 years. James Foster, sitting in the same dressing room as Cook, had been a stalwart of the club for the best part of 17 seasons. This was Foster's first Championship title too. "I felt a bit bad coming in after two games and winning it," smiles Cook.
That summer was a whirlwind. Cook began it playing for Loughborough University and ended it with successive five wicket hauls in an Essex team which went through the Championship season unbeaten. After making his first-team debut against the touring West Indians, Cook came into the Essex team with four Championship games remaining and the title not yet secured. Mohammad Amir had returned to Pakistan and Kiwi Neil Wagner was not due back until the last two matches.
But rather than try and recruit another overseas bowler to fill the gap, the club knew what Cook could offer. In the match against Warwickshire, the one which sealed the Championship with two matches remaining, he proved it. Cook bowled Jonathan Trott and then had Ian Bell caught behind by Foster in successive overs in the second innings. Cook had seen off 11,500 Test runs in the space of seven deliveries.
From there, Warwickshire crumbled and Essex had an innings victory and a Championship title. "If you had told me at the beginning of that year that I would end up playing in a Championship winning team, I would have laughed at you," Cook tells Cricbuzz. "It was a very special. Everything happened very quickly. Making my debut, winning the league. Very special memories."
Cook wasn't finished there. In the following game against Hampshire, Essex were bowled out for 76 in their first innings, 178 behind and forced to follow on. A hundred from Dan Lawrence set the home side a tricky 184 to win, a target they never looked like getting. Essex, with Cook taking 5 for 18, including James Vince for the second time in the game, routed Hampshire for 76 and won the game comfortably.
It was perhaps the most special performance in a campaign full of them. "I didn't think the season could get any better," says Cook. "What the game represented is how we can win a game from any situation. I remember there were lads sitting there saying we have got too many. It was one of those spells. You got on a roll and it all happened so quickly, you don't have a chance to think about it. It was a special afternoon." A week later, Cook took another five-for against Yorkshire in the final game of the season.
Those initial forays in Essex's first team hinted at the potential Cook had. A seam bowler with the skill to nip the ball around consistently, not quick but skiddy and certainly quick enough. Constantly challenging the batsmen's technique and happy to do it for a long time as well as a good time. But despite the grand entrance, Cook had to answer the same question any young cricketer has to at some stage. Can they keep doing it?
Cook has so far answered that question with a resounding yes he can. Last year, his first full county season, he played all three formats and averaged 25 with the ball in Championship cricket. This term, despite injury curtailing his appearances, he is averaging 20. Last week, he took 12 wickets against Kent as Essex secured a nail biting victory to keep them top of this year's Championship. At 22 years of age, Cook is a mainstay of Essex's team and could be so for the next decade.
At one stage though, that looked like it might not be the case. At 15, Cook got into the Essex age group side but was dropped from the programme the following year. It gave him a lesson in how fickle professional sport can be. His dream was hanging by a thread with no guarantee he would get another go. Thankfully, however, he was selected for Essex's Under-17 squad 12 months later, avoiding a fate that he knows would have hit him hard.
By the end of that season, he had made an appearance for Essex's second team, moving from village cricket to a potential first-team player in a little more than 18 months. Despite the rapid rise, Cook still wasn't sure what the future held. His earlier non-selection by Essex was a reminder of how things can change. Second team cricket was all well and good but it didn't mean he would get a chance in the first team. It didn't mean he would make it.
Thinking he needed something to fall back on, and after seeking the opinion of John Childs, the former England player and head of Essex's academy, Cook decided to head to Loughborough University to study History and International Relations and to be part of the MCC's cricket programme. "At that time I wasn't sure if I was going to get signed," Cook says. "I thought well, if I can go and play for Loughborough, Essex will be more inclined to pick me knowing I have played first-class and held my own.
"You look at other sports. Football, rugby, you hear about clubs taking on kids from an early age and then at 18, you're not good enough and out the door. All of a sudden you're there with not a lot. There is no downside for the player or the clubs because they know that this cricketer is getting exposure to first-class counties. He's also getting a bit of a back-up for the future. For me, I was hoping to have a long career but knowing I needed something after."
Cook is full of praise for the impact the MCCU programme had on his development. He is also adamant that the cuts to funding currently being introduced to the MCCU scheme and the mooted removal of first-class status for the Universities' early season games against the counties are short sighted. "I can't understand it. You look at the amount of players the scheme has produced and is still producing. It's not like it has stopped producing players.
"People look at the results at the start of the season and think it's a mickey take. It's not a fair reflection of all the Universities. Maybe one or two have been letting the scheme down for a few years but if you look at Loughborough, Cardiff, Leeds, it's really unfair on those teams. When I played, we never lost a first-class game. From my first year Loughborough squad, we have ten or eleven contracted with counties. It's clearly working. For people in the future who are going to have that taken away from them, it is really unfair."
In cricketing terms, Cook has had plenty of good tutors. He has been able to pick the brains of Alastair Cook, Peter Siddle, Wagner and Amir in his time with Essex. And in captain Ryan ten Doeschate, he has arguably the best county captain at mid-off, helping him through. "Tendo is a brilliant captain," Cook says. "In the warm-ups, he doesn't say big long speeches. He just says little smart, intelligent comments. You know that when he is speaking, it's spot on and you really have got to take it in."
Siddle, "a champion of a bloke", has been a big help too, imparting advice on how to set batsmen up, different grips or areas to bowl on different surfaces. Cook's namesake, Alastair, has offered him plenty as well. They meet at the start of every over when Alastair takes Sam's cap to give to the umpire and they talk plans. What do you think about this? What do you think about that? It is a 161 Test sounding board that not many players can call on.
Cook's performances haven't gone unnoticed. He was named in the MCC's side to face Surrey in the traditional curtain-raiser to the county season in the UAE earlier this year. England selectors are known to have a say in who gets picked and Cook opened the bowling with Stuart Broad, another "unbelievable" experience in an early career not short of them. "It was a pretty special week to have him at mid-off," Cook says. He removed Test openers Rory Burns and Mark Stoneman with the new ball in Surrey's only innings.
The next step for Cook is to gain Lions selection although he understandably does not want to get too far ahead of himself. For now, Essex, and a second Championship title in three years, is where his focus is. "I still can't really believe that I am playing for Essex. Coming to the ground from when I was five or six, watching guys I am now playing with is still very surreal even after three years. I am just trying to enjoy every step of it. You don't know how long it will last. I'm loving playing for Essex. Being a local lad, there is nothing better than playing for your home county. It's a special club."
And in Cook, Essex look to have a special young bowler.
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