Summer 2018

The Oval 2018: Cook's last stand

DAY 1 Friday 7 September: A BOYCOTTIAN DAY

This is, of course, a dead rubber Test, a result of the rather flattering 3-1 lead England has in this fascinating series. But then it is Cookie's last Test which gives it a lot of sentimental value, especially for me who was at Nagpur all those 161 Tests ago in 2006 when the world seemed a much simpler place. And it's at the Oval, which I love and where, to pile on the sentimentality, I watched my very first Test in 1963 with Howard who is with us today. Oh may the saccahrin tears of nostalgia flow! We have all caught the Australian disease from Cookie's maudlin announcement of his retirement to his team mates.

The Oval looked a peach. It was chilly in the Peter May till the sun got round. Poor old Daryl regretted wearing his shorts. I know we've had a hot summer but, mate, it's September. The O2 stand arched opposite us with a fine array of new skyscrapers behind us, the gasometer to our right and Archbishop Tenison’s School to our left. And behind us, the members' bars where the beer is £4 a pint and there's that weird ramshackle set of balconies and corporate boxes. What's not to like? This has to be my favourite and most lovely ground with the exception of a certain county venue in the West Country where we can finish games in two days, no trouble.

It was rather blokeish, of course, although Irish Pete had his nice theatre manager friend, Katie, today whom I have met several times and who definitely raises the cultural tone. And, Daryl, one of the Surrey boys, brought his dad, a very nice mild mannered man who been forced out of Uganda by Idi Amin 1972 when he was 18. Obviously we had stuff in common as my colonial background kicked off in a certain maternity hospital in Kampala in 1949. I sat next to him and chatted for the evening session.

The first session belonged to another era. Root won the toss for the fifth time and England batted on a pitch that offered not a lot to the seamers. Cook jogged on to a pitch that was made for his last ton past an Indian guard of honour and plenty of cheering, although, in a way that suited this modest man, it all seemed rather low key. He and Jennings seemed determined to show that there is still such a thing as Test match batting. With 68 runs on the board at lunch this was Boycottian. We even had a fifty opening partnership which had us urgently looking up CricInfo to find out when the last one was.

Obviously, this was not going to last. Half way through the morning session Kohli brought on Jadeja, replacing Ashwin for this Test as a result of the Indian all-rounder's thigh injury. Immediately the batsmen started to struggle. It was no surprise when Jennings neatly turned one into the hands of leg slip. Still, when normally he has been trudging off wondering if this game will be his last following another demonstration that he doesn't quite cut the mustard, today it must have been reassuring to know that he will soon become the senior opening batsman of this team. Cookie's retirement has surely saved his bacon.

In came Mo hoping to make the number three slot his own. I'm not sure if this is true but I think he has batted at every position in the order from number one to number eight. What an accommodating man he is to the needs of his team in contrast, I may say, to a certain wicket keeping colleague from Yorkshire.

The gods certainly wanted him to nail it at three. His innings was a classic of how to play and miss. How did he manage to make it to 50 late in the afternoon session? He was helped by an unusual failure by Kohli to take a not too difficult catch by his standards in the slips. This was followed by a similar lapse by the illustrious Indian captain off Cook an over or two later. His eyebrows were knitted evermore darkly as he tried a piercing stare into the depths of his own soul.

At lunch England had crawled to a snail's pace 68-1. Had the demons of T20 at last been banished? Worry not. After lunch, the bowlers seemed to be having a better time and even Cookie was groping for the ball. Perhaps they were getting a bit of reverse. On 78, with the score an unprecedented 133-1, he chopped a ball from Bumrah on to his stumps. There was a standing ovation, of course, round the ground. As he raised his bat in acknowledgement was there a mawkish tear in his eye? It was hard to tell from the Peter May stand.

In came Root. Perhaps he's forgotten what it's like to bat at four and can no longer remember a ball with the shine off. He lasted 4 balls and was caught behind. The score hadn't moved. Bairstow marched in and one run later followed Root back to the pavilion. 134-3: familiar territory.

Ali continued to play and miss and Stokes did what has become his new imitation of responsible batting. It didn't last. Finally, Ali feathered one to the keeper and in came the local boy swishing his bat to great applause. Cometh the hour, cometh the man? 'Fraid not. Two balls later he was gone. The boy is learning what failure is like. 168-7.

Buttler and Rashid, justifying at last his existence in the series, bending low in exaggerated forward defence, were there at the close, Kohli, oddly, having taken the new ball only in the 87th over. We ended up with a mere 198 runs for the day and all 90 overs were bowled! I'm sure the stats men will tell us when less than 200 runs were scored in a full day’s play. Back in the days of Trevor Bailey or Ken Barrington, no doubt. These are strange times.

James, Irish, Howard and I had a gin and Fever Tree outside an incredibly busy pub - Daryl, on best behaviour due to the parental presence, didn't join us. Howard and James nearly got into a fight in the messy queue at the bar. Howard and I moved off to a dining place above a pub. Nice food but I couldn’t make out much of what Howard was burbling on about. Having got up at 5 for the 6am train from Cornwall I was knackered when we got back to Howard's.

DAY 2 Saturday 8 September: ENGLAND ON TOP

Day 2 at the Test was all that you'd hope: convivial, boozy and England on top. With Rashid at the crease and only Broad and Jimmy to come, we thought we'd do well to add another 40 runs. When they reached that target we dared to hope for 250. Rashid hit some nice shots and in fact at the start was more fluent than Buttler. He did a sterling job with his 15 that saw off the new ball.

Broad was equally effective, playing within himself, and for a change realising that actually he's just a bowler and you can forget about all that all-rounder stuff. He and Buttler were still there at lunch. Bumrah, inevitably, tried a few short balls and even landed a blow under his armpit, which we later discovered had cracked a rib, although he continued to play throughout the Test. He carried on unphased to 38 till his restraint deserted him and a stupid yahoo gave Rahul a fine running catch near the long on boundary.

By this time Buttler was well into his stride and, when Jimmy came in, went into T20 mode. He didn't quite get to his ton but at 332 England, thanks to his cool head and with able assistance from Rashid and Broad, were in a place of reasonable strength that you couldn't have dreamt of at the start of the day. What a pick this man of Somerset has been for England.

The afternoon session was a scene of steady attrition. Broad had Dhawan lbw with his first ball which he and Rahul spent so long debating that the umpires waved time out before they could go for a review which was just as well as he was plumb.

Pujara and Rahul batted well but Rahul went when India had 70 on the board and in came Kohli. He always seems so impeccably dressed as if his shirt has been starched with an especially bright whitener. Pujara looks scruffy by contrast. This was the vital partnership. Kohli was on a different planet with more time, hitting cleaner and with more authority than anyone else on either side.

However, when Pujara fell after tea you knew that really the wheels had come off. Rahane didn't last long so we had our first look at young Vihari, in the side replacing Pandya. Rashid's main contribution in this innings - he didn't bowl - was a fine example of how not to do a running catch. He completely mistimed his run in, got to the ball too early and somehow allowed it to trickle behind him into the boundary.

Irish and I left the Oval a bit early in order to get to the National Theatre for our bit of high culture. Kohli was on 49 at this point. Mistakenly, as we turned down the steps, we thought we'd seen a four to get him to get another 50. It wasn't him it turned out, as we knew when James WhatsApped to say that we should have stayed another over as we'd have seen Root catching him off Stokes. Pant went soon after that apparently. 174-6 and without Kohli, the game seems up for India. They haven't really played very well in this game.

After the play Irish and I teamed up with James and Daryl for drinks at the National Film Institute and later at Strada on the Southbank where we talked Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism. Irish waxes very lyrical when he's had a few and is, shall we say, opinionated. His passion is endearing but it is hard to get a word in.

A taxi back to my digs in Battersea and I was in bed at half midnight.

DAY 3 Sunday 9 September: ENGLAND ON TOP

India mirrored England's innings, with Vihari and Jadeja doing what Buttler did in our innings. We thought a 50 lead would be nice but India doubled their score and batted on till after lunch. Rashid even got a bowl, though to little effect. India got to 292, 40 behind but game distinctly on.

Cookie came in to great and prolonged applause, the scoreboard scrolling down all his great achievements - most runs, most tons, most Tests, most consecutive Tests, youngest to 1000 runs, 2000, 3000, 4000 etc. I don't think he noticed. He marched in his undemonstrative way to the crease, took his guard, that familiar figure bending over his bat to channel out his mark, and settled down for another day at the office for the last time ever. Nothing had changed except a demonstration of the late flowering straight drive.

Jennings didn't advance his case for a ticket to Sri Lanka when he left a ball from Shami which trimmed the top of off. James and Daryl had seen him on the Tube the night before - inevitable selfie, of course - and had inquired about the ball he'd plopped into leg slip's hands on Friday. "Well," he drawled, "That happens in Test cricket." Not much longer for you, my boy, I fear.

Mo was there for a while. He didn't play and miss as much as he had in the first innings but I can't say he looked very fluent. A peach of a turner from Jadeja pitched outside off and bowled him.

Root looked skittish but then settled. Cook was as phlegmatic and unflambouyant in his 161st Test as he was in his first all that time ago in those pre-selfie days. An occasional clip off the legs, an ungainly lollup for a run now and then, solid in defence, head over bat, and, as ever, that confident, unflashy bat-in-the-air trade mark leave. Oh Cookie, does Test match cricket as we know it end with you?

He had a scare when a turner from Jadeja seemed to have brushed his glove. Kohli at short leg dived full length and had the ball in the palm his outstretched left hand but it popped out when he hit the deck. With an over or so to go Cookie was on 45. The crowd was willing him to get his 50 so they could give him one last standing ovation. Then he took a single: they urged him for two. They called Root for a run and groaned when he didn't. It was not to be. At stumps Cook is still 46 not out, the score at 114-2 is healthy and the final Cookie chapter waits till Monday. I'll be there.

DAY 4 Monday 10 September COOKIE’S DAY

I spent the day with Howard and, as with the day before, I enjoyed the one to one. What a morning to remember. Indian were handicapped by the fact that Sharma was injured so they only had two seamers and a spinner which meant a hell of a workload, though Vihari did help out with his part-time off breaks.

Cook and Root knocked the ball around with ease. Bumrah tried some short stuff to Cook who failed to connect each time, which might have been a good thing. Still, through the day we had the full Cook, the flicks off the legs, the cut shot, a pull, plenty of solid blocks and that trade mark bat high in the air leave. We even had a lesser spotted straight drive.

Half way through the session I heard the rasping Cockney voice of cheeky chappie, Deco, behind me. I've seen him around lots, of course, in various parts of the world, usually pissed. As he proudly said, he's been on every tour for the last 15 years. He was very entertaining in a warm-hearted opinionated sort of way. He reminded me of the time on the dusty road out of the newly built stadium in Dubai, 2009, when he, Wickham and I were practically on the motorway trying to get taxi.

Cookie's 50 soon came up and his progress to that fairy tale meant-to-be ton was stately and inevitable. In the end he made it on a laughable 4 overthrows. The standing ovation was unlike any I've ever seen. Everybody was on their feet and the ground was a sea of clapping hands. Deco and I high-fived - we'd both been at Nagpur. There was cheering and whooping and cries and shouts of "Cookie! Cookie!" He raised both arms to the sky in triumph, held his bat aloft to all parts of the ground, Root gave him a massive hug, the Indian players shook his hand. Still the shouting and cheering and clapping went on. He had to do a second set of acknowledgments and even then it didn't stop. In the end it only subsided when Root took guard and Jadeja came up to bowl at him.

Root's ton soon followed so we had the delicious sight of two tons on the board which I had last seen at Wellington, 2013, (Trott and Compton: boring) and Chennai, 2008, (Strauss and Collingwood: delightful.) By lunch, they'd put on 130 runs and the game was pretty secure for England.

After lunch Cook and Root continued to pile it on. India, a bowler down, looked ragged in the field and disheartened. Even Kohli dropped a couple of catches.

On 321 Root was out. Cook was out on 146 next ball so alas he didn't quite make it to 150. But in a way that was appropriate. Somehow a daddy ton would have complicated the perfect symmetry of a ton in the second innings his first Test and a ton in the second innings of his last. You can imagine the ovation. He didn't make a big deal of it. He took his helmet off and walked off head down, with just a pause and a little wave of the bat before he hurried up the stairs. The most moving thing for me was that every Indian player came up to shake his hand and then they stood in a group clapping in admiration of this legend who had just ground them into the dust.

The stage was set for the big hitters. Needless to say, it didn't quite work out that way. Bairstow and Buttler were soon out, Stokes had a 38 run cameo but in the end it was Rashid and Curran who made hay. By then it all seemed a bit pointless. With a lead of 400, defeat was utterly out of the question. Let's get at them. When Rashid was finally out half an hour after tea Root, to cheers from the crowd, brought them in.

India's fate soon became obvious. Jimmy took out Dhawan and Pujara in his second over, 1-2. And there was to be no tantalising innings from Kohli who gave a thin edge to Bairstow off Broad for a very rare first ball duck. We'd seen it all today. 2-3.

The rot stopped there for the day. Rahane was solid and Rahul made an untroubled fifty. But 390 behind. 3 wickets down including their two bankers, Kohli and Pujara, and fine weather in prospect tomorrow, there is surely only one way in which this Test can go.

Howard and I didn't go drinking in the evening - we'd probably had enough during the day. We went our separate ways and I ate in a real Italian restaurant in Battersea, proper Italian: I could have been in Sicily. It was as if all the family and friends and relations came in for a chat every evening.

DAY 5 Tuesday 11 September INDIA’S LAST STAND

Alas, I wasn’t here this day as I had to get back to Cornwall but I followed on the train. My optimism at the end of play yesterday might have been misplaced: it was still in the balance when I got home, speculating with Caddy, my son, who is living with me ,whether India might even sneak a win. A magnificent 200 run stand between Rahul (149) and Pant (114) kept us fascinated to the very end. Respect to the Indian team. I never thought they could win it because the chase was just too big and they couldn’t afford to lose wickets but they took it to within 14 over to go.

Sadly, I wasn’t there to see Jimmy take out Shami’s middle stump to claim the game and overtake McGrath to become, with 564 wickets, the most prolific fast bowler ever. How lucky we are to have witnessed the career of two great legends of English cricket.

So India lose 4-1. Kohli was gracious in defeat and the series has been played in a great spirit of mutual respect. But is 4-1 a fair reflection of the series? Well, we’ll take but it was a great series and much closer than that. Who says Test cricket is dead? Long live Test cricket!


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