Alastair Cook’s final Test match. A momentous occasion. England won the toss and chose to bat to the delight of the capacity crowd. The sun was shining and the weather set fair. The scene was set. A guard of honour was appropriately formed by the Indian players as they welcomed Cook onto the square. Could he ? Surely not ?
Well, he almost did. The leading English run scorer in test cricket added 71 more to his tally and just as the crowd were beginning to whisper the unthinkable he rather unluckily dragged a wide ball from Jasprit Bumrah onto his stumps and it was all over.
His third standing ovation of the day and he was gone. This was by far and away his best innings of the summer and he seemed far more relaxed and composed at the crease. That said, this was no walk in the park. This was a battling innngs and he had to show all his guts, skill and composure to fight his way through. He was put down low in the gully by Ajinkya Rahane on 37 and was given a real working over in the period immediately after lunch by Mohammed Shami who, amazingly, finished the day wicketless after a day of high class quick bowling.
As it was, it was his partners in pace, Bumrah and Ishant Sharma who took the honours with two and three wickets respectively for less than two runs per over. They created a complete stranglehold over the England batsmen who simply could not release the shackles.
Indeed, so attritional did it become that England’s final score of 198 represented the first time since 1999 that there has been fewer than 200 runs in a full day’s play on day one of a Test match in England. On that day, nineteen years ago, also at The Oval, New Zealand scored 170-8,
The Indian pacemen were ably assisted by left arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja who, on his recall to the side, chipped in with two wickets, the first of which was opener Keaton Jennings, who remains unconvincing at this level. This was his big chance in many ways and, after a slow start, he eased himself into his innings including one very confident reverse sweep, but his dismissal, a tame push off the middle of the bat to leg slip was really unnecessary and simply not good enough.
With Cook’s retirement, England’s problems at the top of the order remain. Rory Burns, the Surrey skipper, is widely tipped to be the next cab off the rank yet all the recent newcomers have come up short. It has to be hoped that Ed Smith and his fellow selectors can unearth a couple of new openers quickly and, if it were to be Burns, it has to be hoped that he can reward the faith being put in him and continue his proven form in county cricket.
Somewhat ironically it was England’s top order who actually saved the team on this dour day. Indeed the score had reached 133 for only one wicket when Cook was dismissed. Whilst this had taken over 63 overs, at least it provided the English middle order with some sort of platform which they had been craving. Alas they blew this good start in a matter of minutes and were blown away with barely a whimper. It is a big concern that England can continue to collapse on such a regular basis, whatever the surface or conditions.
Joe Root was plumb leg before trying to play to leg when a push towards mid off showing the full face of the bat would have served him far better and, a few balls later, the horribly out of form Jonny Bairstow played a nothing shot and edged behind, befitting a man who appears completely bereft of confidence. So, arguably England’s two best batsmen were dismissed without a run to their name.
For all their accuracy and probing, the excellent Indian attack were finally getting their reward and they went for the kill, adding the wickets of Ben Stokes, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali to their list of dismissals before the day was out.
Moeen did at least make it to 50 in his new role at number 3. The jury is out as to whether this is his best position but he must be given credit for a determined performance, painstaking at times, but just what a test match number 3 batsman has to do, head down and full of application, only interspersed with the occasional flourish or straight drive.
Yet for all the excellence of the Indian bowling attack, this was Cook’s day. He came into the day with a certain amount of pressure, all eyes were on him, all the talk leading up to the match was about him and he did not disappoint. He played with all the qualities that have defined his career and made him the scourge of many an opposition bowler. Whilst he was never particularly fluid here, he accumulated steadily and put away the occasional poor delivery. It was just a shame that he could not quite complete the job. However, there’s still the second innings……….