Here's a fun game to occupy the coming months. Which is likely to happen sooner (if at all)? Parliament will gather round, agree on a course of action, and

complete the first stage of Brexit. Or the England selectors will gather around, agree on a course of action, and put in a phone call to Alastair Cook.

If you thought Theresa May's attempts to get a different answer to the same question on her EU withdrawal bill were becoming monotonous, just imagine how Cook must feel every time he is confronted with a microphone as England's search for a Test opener (or two) continues. All it took was a bread-and-butter hundred against the students of Cambridge MCCU last week for the murmurs to strike up - although this time Cook had his Essex captain, Ryan ten Doeschate, to thank for fuelling the speculation.

Every time Cook raises his bat during ten rounds of the Championship that will precede the Ashes later this summer, someone is liable to ask: could England's all-time leading run-scorer be tempted out of retirement? In terms of occupying your time on Twitter, it surely has to beat discussions of backstops and customs unions.

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There is something in the stubbornness of May (a proclaimed Geoffrey Boycott fan) that surely chimes with Cook. He clung on for so long with England that there seemed an element of relief when he let it all go - his departing force channelled into one last valedictory Test hundred at The Oval in September. Now he seems equally set on enjoying the last few years of his career with Essex. "I've played my last game for England," he says early in the piece during the club's media day at Chelmsford.

Although, that said... For a man who has given so much for the cause, that definitive full stop is hard to contemplate. In his maiden stint as a radio commentator for the BBC during England's tour of the Caribbean, Cook let slip a tantalising "never say never", and although he is happy to make the case for others to take up his mantle, the sense of possibility will linger for as long as he continues harvest runs in the shires.

Leaving centre stage is understandably hard. After winning his fourth rowing gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, Steve Redgrave, another sporting knight, said: "Anybody who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me." Four years later, he was wearing a fifth gold around his neck in Sydney.

Harmer named T20 captain
Simon Harmer, Essex's former South Africa offspinner, has been made captain of the T20 Blast side, taking over from Ryan ten Doeschate, who will continue to lead in the Championship and 50-over competition.

While Essex won the Championship under ten Doeschate in 2017, their limited-overs form has been less impressive in recent seasons, and last year they managed just two wins in the Vitality Blast South Group.

"It's an exciting challenge," Harmer said. "I think there's going to be a lot of expectation going forward as we haven't performed to the levels we know we're capable of, but it's a challenge that I wanted and I'm really looking forward to leading the team in the right direction."

Cook was never quite so given to melodramatic pronouncements, but he is sticking to the script for now. "I was asked a very interesting question on a panel show, with about 18 different circumstances, and I said 'you can never say never'. But look, I've played my last game for England. There's always that one thing, if there's an absolute emergency or something... But I'm nowhere near that mindset. I saw Tendo say something the other day, but I've had 12 amazing years of playing for England, it's time for the next generation of players - certainly top-order players - to try to make their mark.

"In terms of pulling on that cap and playing cricket - in one way it's a sad thing it's never going to happen again, but I've had my time. I had an amazing journey, I've loved it, but towards the end I wasn't the player I was and things had to move on... They won't be making the phone call to me anyway, and no matter what happens I've got the summer with Essex and I'm looking forward to spending it with the Eagles."

The Eagles certainly won't mind having Cook around as he attempts to quietly unwind after more than a decade on the treadmill with England. Adjusting to the more mundane rhythms of a county season was not the sort of challenge that enthused his predecessors as England captain, Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan, but Cook has always played the game at his own tempo. As well as the challenge of winning a few more trophies with Essex - he played his part in their memorable 2017 Championship title - there is the simple pleasure of taking to the field with your mates.

"It's going to be different, it's the first time I've ever played a game without the lure of England selection there, and that's probably going to take a little bit of time to get used to," he said.

"It was important for me to have something to look forward to. The transition period, I spoke to a couple of people about retiring, and they were very clear that you've got to have something to do. I'm not saying I'm just here 'to do something' but I needed a date in my diary, and in my mind, that I could have the winter [to myself] and then come back to it.

"It's the first time I've ever played a game without the lure of England selection there, and that's probably going to take a little bit of time to get used to"
"I didn't know what else to do, in one sense, but also I've spent a lot of time playing cricket here at Essex. I know a lot of the guys here really well, people like Ryan and Ravi [Bopara]. Ravi I played against at Under-11s, the next year I was playing in an Essex team with him. That's a lot of time and I wanted to carry on playing cricket with people like that - Nick Browne, Tom Westley, people I get on really well with, I want to share a dressing room with."

On who might finally lay an irrefutable claim to his spot in the Test side, as with Brexit, there are no easy answers. Cook is circumspect - "you'll have to read my Times column," he joked - but he more than anyone knows the value of seizing an opportunity when the spotlight is on you. An Ashes summer without Cook to face down the new ball seems a disconcerting prospect; but it is up to his would-be successors to quell talk of a return.

"Places are up for grabs, I think everyone who's played has showed glimpses of good stuff, to be in the side for a long period. It's certainly not an easy place to bat, and it's a challenge, but whoever they pick's got a great summer to go in with, an Ashes summer, always a very exciting time. It's a great opportunity to do something special. You score a hundred in an Ashes Test match at the top of the order, then you get remembered."