Alastair Cook has never made a Test hundred against Australia in England. For a batsman keenly aware of his stats, and there is no shame in that, it was an omission to rectify in a career that compares with the best. The third day of the final Investec Test built inexorably towards filling that gap, the anticipated denouement gradually slipping into Sunday morning, until five minutes before the close of the third day the achievement cruelly eluded him.
Perhaps the last thing Cook wanted with three overs remaining was the sight of Steven Smith, Australia’s captain in waiting, cranking up his legspin. Two rank full tosses were duly delivered before Smith turned his last ball of the over into Cook’s pads and, crouching suspiciously, he inside-edged it to short leg. Smith’s 16th Test wicket came with a story attached. Cook was 15 runs short.
Personal achievements, or personal pride, seemed to be all England had left to play for in a Test that has tarnished their Ashes series victory. England, after following on 332 runs behind, still trail by 129 runs with four wickets remaining. The second new ball lies in wait, an over away, to be taken by Australia fast bowlers benefitting from a good night’s rest. They will expect to complete the job before the forecast storm arrives in early afternoon.
As defiance goes, Cook’s five-and-a-half hour resistance was more gallant than it was thrilling. Hollywood would have turned to the special effects team for a bit of value added. It is a fair bet that some spectators stared into their pints or did the crossword (the latter a more uncommon sight at The Oval than across the river at Lord’s). But it was a necessary rebalancing for an England batting side that with the Ashes won has become rather too besotted by its love of attacking cricket.
Cook is now an Ashes-winning captain, but when it comes to his most major contributions with the bat, dutiful resistance in the face of adversity has been his lot. His highest knock in this series has been his 96 as England were defeated at Lord’s and he finishes with two half-centuries in a series where his solidity has been meanly rewarded.
If The Oval, in the phrase beloved of Henry Blofeld, looked a picture then Cook was the still life at its centre, a study in passive concentration, every movement calculated for maximum resistance in stultifying heat. Batting in an England follow-on seems to suit his stubbornness: on the two previous occasions he has endured it he made a century both times, against Sri Lanka and India.
His defensive push could take the force out of a runaway train, not as much a stroke as a buffer, a shot that would be approved even by the most avid proponent of Health and Safety.
The internal voice telling Cook it might be time to resign from the captaincy has been banished, but runs for England’s record Test century-maker have been in short supply all the same. His very presence seemed to take the sting out of Mitchell Johnson; he looked willing to bat for a lifetime until the offspinner, Nathan Lyon, offered him one short and wide enough to cut safely; and his match-up with Peter Siddle was that of two old salts revelling in a stalemate.
Adam Lyth would have envied his solidity. England’s first wicket to fall, he went in a manner to which he has become sadly accustomed, pushing crookedly at a delivery from Siddle around off stump and caught at second slip by Michael Clarke. His dispirited expression told of a series that has brought only 115 runs for nine dismissals, the faith of England’s selectors admirable but unrewarded. Siddle, barely touching 80mph, conceded only a single in six overs up to lunch and less than a run an over all day.
It has been a tough summer for Lyth, the first player from the seaside town of Whitby to represent Yorkshire, never mind England, and he has become increasingly tentative. Like Gary Ballance before him, he can expect to return to his county for recuperation and reassessment.
In the short term, Moeen Ali is fancied to open the innings against Pakistan in the UAE in October, but the list of potential candidates for the role in South Africa is already being drawn up.
Clarke experienced a new sensation in his final Test as Australia captain – enforcing a follow-on for the first time, that 332-run margin offering ample security. With the possibility of storms on Sunday, he had little choice, but as he gathered his bowlers together on the outfield to confirm the decision, he would have felt a little trepidation, however illogical, at the novelty of it all.
By tea, three England batsmen had succumbed. Lyth departed before lunch, his England place surely leaving with him. Ian Bell, whose statistics mark him down, at 33, as a batsman on the decline, and Joe Root followed on a drowsy afternoon, another England batsman undone by a desire to take on the short ball.
Bell, has had a mediocre series, revealing few of the graceful touches that made him the Man of the Series on Australia’s previous visit. He had been dropped by Clarke at second slip, off Mitchell Marsh, before Australia’s captain accepted a simpler opportunity off the same bowler, who has impressed on this dry surface.
Root has discovered that elevation to the No. 1 ranking should come with a scrapbook of salivating fast bowlers, eager for a prize scalp. Johnson was eager for the challenge, Root’s attacking inclinations drew him into a hook shot and a top-edge sailed to Mitchell Starc at long leg.
Cook, though, looked unconcerned. There were nine fours in his 50, refreshment stops interspersed along his determined plod, three of them, unusually, in one over from Marsh, as he strafed the covers off front and back foot. He was to gather only two more.
Nathan Lyon had not had the expected impact, the ball gripping sharply at times, but not all that often. Two wickets in an over were a vital contribution nonetheless, Jonny Bairstow leaving to a cracking catch by Adam Voges at short leg as an inside edge flew there at some speed, Ben Stokes giving Clarke a third slip catch when he pushed at one that turned out of the rough.
It was some time later that Bairstow, or anybody for that matter, became aware of TV replays showing the ball had struck the grille of Voges’ helmet. Strictly speaking, he should have been ruled not out. It was a reminder of Bairstow’s fate in Mumbai two years earlier when he was given out at silly point off Gautam Gambhir’s helmet from the last ball of a session and India refused to withdraw the appeal. Bairstow would probably have preferred not to know.