The silence lies thick and heavy, like a warm duvet. Twenty-five thousand pairs of eyes sit spellbound and suspenseful, like guests at a surprise birthday party waiting for the right moment to jump out. It has taken 161 Tests and 12 years, but finally everyone wants to watch Alastair Cook bat.
Cook cuts a single to point to move into the 90s. Already, he has exceeded all expectations of his international swansong. Nobody who has seen Cook bat this summer would remotely have imagined he might end his Test career like this, with two big scores and an audience in the palm of his glove. In the first innings, he had played beautifully for 71. It was good. It was enough; more than enough. All he had wanted, he admitted at stumps on day one, was not to end on a low note.
This is a much harder ambition than you might think. After all, virtually every batsman ends his innings with the finality of dismissal. Unhappy endings are woven into the fabric of the game: Don Bradman’s duck, Kim Hughes’s tears, Kevin Pietersen’s sacking. The unlucky careers end in failure. The lucky ones end in obscurity. Cricket is far too barbarous a game for fairytales.
Cook may not be the greatest player to have stepped onto a cricket field, but he may well be one of the stubbornest. He will have known nobody expected him to end on a high, but then nobody expected an unassuming chorister from Bedford to play 160 Tests and rewrite the England record books. Nobody expected a shy, gawky farm boy to lead his country to two Ashes wins. From the moment he first picked up a bat, Cook has got used to being underestimated. He glances Jasprit Bumrah to fine leg to move to 91.
The career of Alastair Cook has essentially been built on four shots. Drop the ball short and he will cut you through square or pull you to leg. Put the ball just outside off-stump, and he will leave it alone: unfussily, without regret, all day if necessary. Stray onto the stumps or onto his legs, however, and he will glance you to distraction: to fine leg and deep mid-wicket and every blade of grass in between.
The glance is not a sexy shot. But it is a deceptively tough one. Meet the ball too late and you risk it thudding into your pads, perhaps even trapping you LBW. Meet it too early and you risk flicking it up in the air. The glance demands timing, balance, poise, patience and economy of movement. It’s a very Alastair Cook sort of shot. And he enjoys it so much that he has scored more Test runs with the glance – 3204 – than Graeme Pollock did in total.
When he’s feeling good, though, when all the gears are greased and the levers in alignment, he’ll drive. This is what he does now: a beautiful off-drive, an entirely wanton off-drive, rakishly struck on the up and just tantalising the fielder enough to draw the futile dive. Four runs. The crowd coos, more an exhalation than an exaltation. For seasoned Cook observers, it’s the shot that tells you everything is going to be OK.
Cook, for his part, seems utterly oblivious. One day, neurologists of the future will dissect Cook’s brain in search of the secret to his legendary powers of concentration. Who knows what they’ll find: perhaps that the entire structure is reinforced with iron bars, or that there’s not actually a brain in there at all, just a respiring, gently weathered batting glove. For all the self-doubt, fatigue and ennui he has endured away from the crease, at it he has attained Zen.
Perhaps it’s why – and this is one of the lesser-known Cook stats – he is the only England batsman this century to average more as captain than not. Most players find the manifold demands of captaincy a depressant on their game. Yet while Cook was never the most natural leader – he had spent too long in his own universe to master anybody else’s – somehow amid the trauma of the Kevin Pietersen saga, the transition to new coaches and new personnel and the treadmill of touring life, he carried on churning out runs.
One other fun fact as Cook moves to 95: his wife Alice is expecting their third child. Her due date is today. She’s in the crowd. Most of us would barely be able to stare straight on a day like this, let alone score a Test century. But then, as we’ve established, Alastair Cook isn’t most of us.
Bumrah bowls to Cook again. It’s poor, down the leg-side, and Cook glances him fine for another single. This has been India’s most miserable bowling day of the series by a distance. After competing ably for four-and-a-half Tests, finally the wheels have come off. Ishant Sharma, Cook’s tormentor earlier in the series, has spent most of the day off injured. India are already a bowler light after dropping Hardik Pandya. The fielding is below its customary standard. Cook’s partner Joe Root has already been dropped once at slip, and will be dropped once more before he reaches his hundred.
Finally, the cards are falling into place for Cook. Since announcing the end of his career, the tributes have flowed like good port, taking him aback rather. Perhaps he never realised quite how highly he was regarded. Perhaps he never was that highly regarded until the end hovered into view. For a few years he was about as divisive a figure as English cricket has had: the Sith Lord to Pietersen’s Luke Skywalker, or the other way round, depending on how you saw it.
But that’s all water under the bridge now. Pietersen warmly congratulated Cook on his retirement, and in a couple of hours he’ll do so again. “Script written!” he’ll write. “Fairytale ending! Richly deserved having had to face a brand new Duke’s ball for 12yrs! BRAVO.” And he’ll add the applause emoji. Cook probably doesn’t even know how to do an emoji. For this one game, English cricket’s two parallel traditions are united in acclaim.
The ball’s dribbling out to backward point. Cook’s trotting through for the single that will take him to 97. And then, in a few incredulous blinks he’s on 101, the ball hurled with abandon by Bumrah and running away for four overthrows. Somehow, despite every single spectator in the ground sitting perched on the edge of their seats in anticipation of a Cook century, the moment itself has still managed to take everyone by surprise.
Five runs. Thirty-three Test centuries. In many ways, the story of Cook’s career is a tale of numbers. Rarely has a batsman so embodied the old saw of batting that it’s not how but how many. Cook didn’t bat for aesthetics or amplitude, but time and volume. Watch a YouTube compilation of one of his great innings and the overwhelming sensation is one of dissatisfaction. There’s no great acceleration, no violent seizure of power, no single shot upon which to hang your memories of it. Just a guy very competently piling up runs, each run as good as the next, no more special than the last.
Cook specialised in great monuments, not great moments. But as the ball runs away to the boundary and the crowd gasps in delight and he lifts his sweatless helmet off his head and raises his arms in triumph and Ben Stokes pounds his fist against the glass of the dressing room window in celebration and the applause refuses to abate, this is legitimately a great moment. It may even be the single most memorable moment of Cook’s career, right at its very end. And the four runs that brought it up, he didn’t even score himself. There’s something very Cook about that, as well.
He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll score another 46 before finally going for one cut too many and edging one behind. Every single member of the Indian team will shake his hand before he leaves the field. With tears in his eyes, he’ll drag himself from the crease one last time. All batting careers end in failure, but this is perhaps as wonderful a finale as he’ll have dared to envisage.
Several hours later, long after England have declared, the crowd will continue to sing his name. Some time after that, he’ll become a father for the third time. And a little time after that, the next chapter of his life will begin. There are rumours of a radio career. His expertise will doubtless be in demand on the public speaking circuit. The seasons will pass. The hairs will grey and the kids will grow. But this moment will remain pristine: England’s Alastair Cook, walking up the Oval steps, and into the pages of glorious legend.