And now, the end is near. And so he faced the final curtain.
All around the sun-bathed Oval they were on their feet in anticipation, well before Alastair Cook walked out – one last time – for England. There was not the guard of honour from the India players and the umpires that had ushered him onto the field in the first innings. There didn’t need to be. The applause from all those standing to greet him did it all.
It swelled as he jogged down the steps ahead of Keaton Jennings and onto the pitch. On the big screen a list of his greatest achievements scrolled past one by one. There were many: the milestones, the major series victories, the number of games, the captaincy records and, of course, the runs. And as the numbers flashed up, still they applauded.
He paused on the outfield for a quick stretch, went through the usual routine as he has done 290 times before and strode to the middle. And still they applauded.
There was a handshake from Virat Kohli, as there was in the first innings as India’s fielders settled into their positions and Jasprit Bumrah walked back to the top of his mark. And still they applauded. It was as if the crowd could hold off the final moment by clapping all afternoon.
It was the longest ovation at least one reporter could remember witnessing in person. And it was filled with genuine warmth.
Eventually the ground announcer spoke and the crowd, almost reluctantly, hushed and took their seats.
He took his guard and Bumrah ran in, thumping the ball into Cook’s thigh-pad. The air evaporated from the Oval as the crowd collectively held its breath and released with a rumbling murmur of relieved tension.
The first ball had passed and the last innings had begun.