Alastair Cook's Oval encore a reminder of what England will miss

George Dobell at The Oval7 Minute Read

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You didn't need to be watching to know what had happened. The groan that went around the ground told the story.

Alastair Cook was out. With a tiny kick of frustration, he was gone. He walked off the pitch the way he walked on: a standing ovation accompanying every stride. If there was any doubt about the affection in which he is held by the vast majority of England supporters, it had been dispelled. A great career, an era even, is coming to a close.

You could feel The Oval willing him to succeed here. It wasn't just the guard of honour the India players provided - even the umpires applauded Cook to the middle - and it wasn't just the presentations made to him before the game. Nice though some moments are, they have become relatively customary.

No, you could feel it more in the anxious silence that took hold around the ground as each ball was delivered. You could hear it in the cheers of relief that greeted the first boundary and you could see it in the sustained ovation - standing again - that greeted his half-century.

Cook's relationship with England supporters is interesting. Some players - think David Gower or Ian Bell - owe their popularity largely to the beauty of their play and others - think James Anderson or Ian Botham - to the abundance of their skill. But the love affair with Cook has taken a different course. Sure, he started well and there were times, such as in Australia in 2010-11, when the run-scoring business appeared gloriously simple. Times when he looked infallible.

But there were lean times, too. Many of them. Times when every innings became a feat of endurance. Times when it seemed every run had to be hacked out of his soul with a blunt spoon. Times when he looked very, very fallible.

In an odd way, perhaps that is why his popularity became so enduring. Because batting was, at times, so hard and because Cook clearly had to dig deep to overcome his limitations. He wasn't an impossibly talented genius - like Viv or Virat - but an everyman giving his all to sustain his dream. And, in fair weather and foul, he would put himself in the firing line looking for neither hiding places nor excuses. It is a remarkable feat of endurance, persistence and determination that, of all those to have represented England, it is Cook who finishes as the leading run-scorer and centurion. He would be the first to admit he is nowhere near the most naturally talented.

Everyone watching at The Oval - a fair few of them in chef's hats - knew what Cook has been through. The desperate, public struggle for runs. The equally public humiliation of losing the ODI captaincy on the eve of the World Cup. The abuse that was heaped on him in the aftermath of the Kevin Pietersen debacle. Many of us didn't agree with that decision; few can have thought he deserved the level of vitriol directed his way by some. It didn't help Pietersen, either. Increasing divides and scratching at wounds rarely does.

They knew this was Cook's farewell tour, too, and they were hoping he would show us a medley of the greatest hits. And, for a while, that's exactly what he did. There was the classic cut-pull combination - successive boundaries off Jasprit Bumrah - which must have accounted for a fair proportion of the 1428 fours in his Test career; as good a cover drive as he can ever have played to bring back memories of the 2010-11 Ashes tour; and, early on, a perfectly timed flick through midwicket off Ishant Sharma that provided an echo of Cook at his very best.

That was quite a revealing stroke. Cook can only play it - and the straight drives that punctuated this innings - when at his best. And, since the start of the Southampton Test, his technique has looked in far better order.

Instead of going back as the ball is delivered, he had reverted to going back and across to ensure he doesn't have to reach for deliveries on or around off stump. And, instead of standing square at the crease - as most coaches would suggest batsman should - Cook has reverted to the slightly more open stance recommended by his sometimes coach, Gary Palmer (who had his fingerprints all over this innings), that allows him to maintain his balance when the ball nips back at him and sees his back foot pointing towards mid-off when he drives. It's anathema to many coaches, but it works for Cook.

Perhaps it could work for Joe Root, too. He again fell due to a lack of balance at the crease. And he again squandered a review, as he has no idea where his head is at the moment of impact. Standing perfectly square - as the coaching manual suggests - Root finds his front foot in the way when the ball in angled in and tends to fall away to the off side as he plays around it. A more open stance may well be the solution. It's not where he bats that is bothering him; it's how.

Might this innings - and bear in mind it was made on a day when only three men passed 11 - give Cook cause to rethink his retirement? It's possible. He is only 33, after all, and an English winter - a season that overplays its hand like the last guest to leave a party - will drive even the happiest family man to wonder if that tour of the Caribbean was such a trial, after all.

Alastair Cook raises his bat to the crowd while walking offGetty Images

But realistically, he was able to play this innings because he knew he was in the home straight. It was his concentration that let him down in Southampton; twice drawn into loose strokes. But those powers of concentration, the focus, are easier to find if you know the requirement is finite. And here, freed from the concerns for his future, freed from concerns about the outcome of the series, freed from consequence, he seemed able to find those reserves once more.

It is a long, long time since he has batted better against a good attack in demanding conditions. He'll miss all this, of course, but there will be relief it's over, too. If he finds himself in the Caribbean, it is much more likely to be as a member of the media.

He had some fortune. Just after lunch - concentration disturbed, perhaps - he was lured into poking at one that flew low to gully. But, underlining how tough life has been for batting this summer, he went on to register the first half-century by an opening batsman on either side in the series. He probably deserved a little fortune. Few would begrudge him a few more hours in the sun.

Gradually, confidence in the crowd began to grow. From those nervous ovations at the start, where every run was savoured and rewarded, so thoughts began to turn to the dream scenario. Could he pull off the impossible: a century on debt and farewell performance? They hardly dared give voice to the hope. But, as Kohli's desperation seduced him into an optimistic review, as the nudges into the leg side for singles came more often, as he started to look more like Cook of old, you could hear the whispers grow. Maybe something special was unfolding.

It was not to be. Sport doesn't offer many fairytale endings and tends to remind us that, if it doesn't end badly, it doesn't need to end. There was to be no century. Not in this innings, anyway. Drawn into poking at one that nipped back at him, he was bowled off the inside edge. The Oval groaned and Cook walked back with his head bowed.

But all the best performers leave you hungry for a just a bit more, don't they? And, in providing this encore, Cook provided a reminder of his many qualities. And showed how much he'll be missed.