On a chaotic, historic day at The Oval, Alastair Cook bowed out in a fairytale manner. Ben Jones looks back at Cook’s innings, and revels in the thrill of a risk-laden finale.
The manner in which Alastair Cook reached his century today wasn’t elegant. It wasn’t a flowing cover drive, a battering pull shot, a flamingo or a trademark nudge off his pads. Jasprit Bumrah picked the ball up and fired it well over his head, for four overthrows.
Yet it was fitting. For Cook it’s never been about how; it’s always been about how many.
There were lots of moments when it may have been ‘fitting’ for Cook to be dismissed in this innings. At one point, his career run tally could have been 12’345, which would have pleased the scorers. At others, it could have seen his average be a clean 45.00. But that was never going to be Cook’s way. For all of his qualities, neat and tidiness was never really one of them, and leaving things clean was never going to be his style – he wanted as many as possible, while he still had the chance.
And so he ends on 12472 Test runs. Not a round number, nothing pretty or pleasing in and of itself, but the fifth most any player in history has managed to total across a career. 147 may be the number noted down in Wisdens of the future, but the four separate occasions on which he walked to the crease throughout this innings would have meant just as much. Moments on the stage, when all of England could make their love plain. As much as anything else, this innings was giving time to the crowd to prove their adoration.
And so they did. The Oval has often been cursed with being the last Test of the summer, host to dead rubbers and non-contests. Had Cook decided to keep his retirement to himself, this Test could have easily fallen into that category, but with the knowledge that this was the last time to see the great man in the England whites, England fans flocked.
It was the nature of this relationship which gave the innings it’s sparkle. Nobody was going to make their mind up about Cook off the back of this knock. Nobody was going to change their mind, commit to the fan club or abandon the church based on what happened over the last few days. This one was about celebration, and very little more. Which is why when he endured the diciest start of his career, the whole ground was on the verge of a collective collapse.
In his first fifty deliveries, Cook played and missed 12 times. That’s more than he has ever missed at the start of a Test innings. He was ending his career with his worst ever start.
In front of a crowd which, in truth, had waited all day just to see him begin his final journey to the crease, this was about as tantalising as a passage of play can be. If one, just one, of those misses had been a fine edge, an edge pouched by the keeper or the slips, then Alastair Cook would be gone. That would be that. Cook’s entire career was flashing past the edge. At the point of his career when he really would get no more chances, he was taking more than ever.
Alfred Hitchcock said that two people chatting over lunch could be as suspenseful and thrilling as any other potential movie scenario, provided the director showed that there was a bomb under the table. In the presence of an impending threat, nothing happening just creates more tension. Even the third innings of a dead rubber, where a large lead swells further and further beyond competitive balance, could be terrifying if the notion of it ending was a threat in itself. Nobody wanted Cook to stop batting. His retirement was the bomb under the table, except terrifyingly, we all knew it was there.
And really, that kind of underlines a point which is often missed about Cook. He may have spent much of his career opposite the South African born king-of-the-narrative, but Cook himself has an underrated knack for knocks that seem to be right out of a film-script.
Baby-faced debut century, called up at the last minute? Tick.
Dramatic, all-guns-blazing-hope-gone century on the verge of being dropped? Tick.
Subsequent era-defining performance in the biggest series of all? Tick.
Skippers’ century to inspire that sporting achievement most beloved of the English, the comeback? Tick.
Of course, his shots themselves are not really the stuff of movies. He ends his career with his most prolific shot being the work into leg. It’s given him 2248 runs, and far more than a cut or a drive or a sweep, it’s linguistically apt; Cook’s batting isn’t glamorous, but it works.
And it often works in the face of all probability. Last night he kept playing and missing and playing and missing, but still he stayed. He wasn’t batting well, but he was still batting, for now. As with all the best movies, the final act was worth the wait.
Because after those 12 misses in his first 50 balls, Cook missed just 11 on Day Four in its entirety. Gone was the pervasive case of the nerves that had swept around the ground late on Sunday evening, and in its place was anticipation. Somewhere around the time he passed 80, it seemed inevitable that things were going to fall into place. Cook’s celebration, arms aloft in front of the Vauxhall Road End, will go down as one of English cricket’s most charming, joyful moments.
In its entirety, his final effort as a Test batsman may not have reflected his famed security at the crease. That rocky start left its imprint on the innings, Cook leaving the field having missed 12% of his deliveries in the knock as a whole. He has never missed more in any of his Test tons. Knowing Cook’s perfectionism, that will marginally detract from the effort. But for the rest of us, it enhanced the enjoyment. It raised it to another level. It reflected that oddly cinematic quality that has permeated Cook’s career, and brought it front and centre, just as the credits were beginning to roll.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.