England vs India: Fifth Test, Day Four – The Long Farewell.

Inevitable really.  Once he’d survived the new ball, it was written in the stars that Cook would finish off with a century, and while fairy tale endings are rare in sport, this one just seemed like it was always going to happen.  Cook batted better than he has done for a couple of years, the mental freedom gained by the decision to retire lending a fluidity and, dare I say it, style that had been absent for even longer than his best form.

Of course, scoring a century meant that some were all too quick to say he shouldn’t retire at all, a superb missing of the context of this final innings if ever there was one.  Yet with Cook, this happens all too often – the determination not to allow his record to speak for itself, but to demand and insist that it be recognised as something far more has caused irritation where it was never required.  This peculiar demand that “greatness” be recognised without qualification, often by those who insist otherwise when it isn’t a player they are so keen on has managed to generate ill feeling where a final superb innings should have been cause for celebration for all, even those who may have objected to the media beatification of him over the years.

For Cook has been a truly excellent opener for England, with a record that reflects longevity, skill and mental strength.  He deserves the plaudits for an outstanding career as a batsman, and if his ability as captain wasn’t at the same level, he’s not the first and won’t be the last of whom that will be said.  His achievements do not need artificially inflating, and particularly not if the intention is to try to prove some kind of point about the moral rightness of past decisions rather than a player being judged on his own merits.  Any player.

For Cook, the best tribute that can be paid to him is the one he said himself – that he was the best player he could possibly be.  There have been many more talented, but few have extracted the maximum from their ability the way he has.  As both a statement of record, and indeed as advice and aspiration for any cricketer, at whatever level, it is profoundly important, and the one he may well be most proud about.   His weaknesses as a batsman were obvious, his flaws laid bare particularly when out of form and struggling technically.  Yet his strengths too were substantial, perhaps nothing quite so much as an extraordinary degree of concentration.  He will be partly defined by the fall out that led to the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, and the sides taken in that argument.  Both of those batsmen have departed the scene now, but the schism in English cricket remains, and is by far a more troubling and damaging issue than two players.  Perhaps both will reflect on their parts in that, perhaps not, but the personalisation of the whole affair reflected badly on all sides.

Today was a day for paying tribute to an excellent player, and deservedly so.  If few get the opportunity to go out in style, players of distinction do at least deserve to be recognised properly for their contributions.  This appears too much to ask, sometimes.

If Cook was all about saying farewell, for Root it was for smacking down those who complained about his clear pulling of rank in terms of batting at number four.  He looked more fluent and in command than he has all summer, and while a dead rubber is hardly the time to make definitive judgements, allowing England’s best player to bat where he feels most comfortable is surely the best way forward rather than trying to patch weaknesses elsewere with him.

The two of them took the game far beyond India, who were already going through the motions midway through the day and simply waiting for the England declaration.  The usual fun and games late on added to the total, and with the target an improbable 464, Root finally decided enough was enough.

If India were going through the motions with the ball, they had one foot on the plane home with the bat, as James Anderson threatened to steal some of Cook’s thunder by drawing level with Glenn McGrath on the all time list.  There’s an irony here – in the determination of some to do all possible to inflate Cook’s record, a particular line has emerged about him being worth far more due to opening the batting in England against the Duke ball.  Yet if that is accepted, it automatically lessens Anderson’s achievements on English pitches using the same Duke ball.  Watching certain observers attempt to square that particular circle could prove amusing.

Rahul and Rahane steadied the ship from 2-3, but this game is more or less done, and England are almost certain to win it 4-1.  India should be wondering how this has happened, England will just be relieved that it has.  The future is an unknown except that at the end of play tomorrow, there’s only one candidate for that Man of the Match award.