For 190 balls and 263 minutes Joe Root’s comment that an Alastair Cook hundred was “written in the stars” looked to be a masterful piece of astrology by the England captain.
The crowd willed it and there was silence when an inside edge cannoned onto his stumps snuffing out the fairytale sign off to send Cook on his way for 71 runs clutching only the consolation of another half century chalked up on the record.
It was day of classic Cook, classic Test cricket and classic England. Cook did what he has done for 12 years and 161 matches. He accumulated and occupied the crease playing his three shots: the cut, pull and nudge, taking his tally of runs to 12,325 and his total number of leaves to 5,256, a bulging logbook of self-control and patience.
For the first half of the day the Test meandered along at 2.2 runs an over with little happening. It was a throwback fitting for the final farewell of a player born for an age of old fashioned cricketing values.
Cook’s dismissal then sparked a spectacular England collapse, a national trait that began well before Cook’s time and will outlive us all. The only thing was missing was English rain. Instead, the sun shone and the Oval looked spectacular, the arena perfectly set for Cook to bow out in style.
Cook has always been more about substance than style. He has spent the week playing down his achievements, assessing himself as “not the most talented” player. Others have instead provided the glowing words of praise. Andrew Strauss presented him with a commemorative cap before play with his number of Test matches, 161, stitched on the front and later told Sky Sports that Cook retires as England’s “greatest ever player.”
The Professional Cricketers’ Association published a montage of tributes from 70 of the 74 Test cricketers Cook has played alongside for England. Most were simple well dones, the northern contributions (mainly from Durham) referred to a “posh choir boy” while James Anderson played the old gag of pretending he thought the camera had been turned off. “Don’t even like the bloke anyway, all he bangs on about is lambing season this, lambing season that.”
The notable absences were Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, the latter less surprising, although he was at the Oval paying a rare visit to an English cricket ground.
Cook joined the millions of Londoners commuting to work in the morning when he travelled to the Oval on the tube with Keaton Jennings, a chance for the retiring old pro to spend some time with the office junior passing on the lessons learned.
He walked out with Jerusalem playing and through an India guard of honour. Jennings skirted around the outside leaving Cook to walk through alone to soak up the loud applause, stopping briefly for a handshake with Virat Kohli before taking a deep breath and asking the umpire for his guard.
“It all happened so quickly,” he said. “It was really weird. It was such a nice gesture by Virat but you just focus on batting. You don’t really appreciate it.”
Donald Bradman lasted two balls in his final Test innings at the Oval. He was bowled by Eric Hollies on a wet pitch, and England had just been dismissed for 52. Conditions were a bit more benign for Cook, who was greeted by an Indian new ball attack that bowled too short, a slip cordon that suddenly started dropping chances and an Indian team that resembled a beaten side playing a dead rubber. Such luxuries earlier in the series may well have prevented this being his last Test.
He was off the mark with a push through the covers for three, clipped Ishant Sharma off his legs for his first boundary and pulled Jasprit Bumrah through midwicket for four when he dropped short. Cook has never butchered attacks, just punished bowlers for bad balls. He has one gear, and was again happy to motor along at his own pace visibly relaxing once he had judged conditions.
Batting became harder after lunch because India bowled far better and suddenly it was a high quality challenge to score runs. Sharma bowled around the wicket and correctly calibrated his length bringing Cook on the front foot to draw him into the danger area that has been his weakness.
Five overs of maidens followed as Moeen Ali groped at thin air and Cook became shotless against Sharma. He was dropped at gully by Ajinkya Rahane on 37 but doggedly saw off the threat, eventually driving Sharma for four. “This is vintage Cook,” said Sunil Gavaskar on Test Match Special as he reached his 57th half century to trigger another standing ovation.
It was the first half century by any opener in this series and only the third all summer. Cook willed himself on moving past 70, the previous highest score by an opener. For so long this summer Cook’s dismissals have been predictable. This time it was a surprise, coming from nowhere. Bumrah nipped one back, clipped the inside edge and knocked middle stump over.
There is one more innings, but by then the pitch will have worn and he is wise enough to know this was his chance to perform his century celebration: the tug of the ear and look to the heavens.
“I’m pleased I got a bit of a score, but I’m disappointing to get out when I did. I don’t know why I missed it. I could have got forward a bit more, I don’t know. It was disappointing.” No, not disappointing. Crushingly disappointing. Typically understated to the end.
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