Alastair Cook's unforgettable farewell fitting for giant of the game

George Dobell at The Oval7 Minute Read

'The most surreal four days of my life' - Cook

Alastair Cook tries to describe the emotions he felt as he completed his final innings as an England batsman

And they all lived happily ever after.

It wouldn't quite be true to say you couldn't script Alastair Cook's farewell - have you seen Attack of The Killer Tomatoes? - but, had seven dwarves, a fawn and a princess welcomed him back into a dressing room made of candy, it could hardly have proved more fairytale.

The Oval has been the scene of many remarkable events. It hosted the first football international and the first FA Cup. It was the birthplace of the Ashes and, towards the end of WW2, was fitted out as a prisoner of war camp. It's witnessed rock concerts from The Who, Rod Stewart and Genesis.

But it can rarely have witnessed an ovation like the one that greeted Cook's century here. Without invitation or organisation, without any need to implore them to 'make some noise,' the crowd rose as one and gave Cook an ovation so heartfelt and sustained that you wondered, for a while, if it would ever stop. Britney Spears had a marriage that lasted less time than this; Brian Clough a spell at Leeds.

At one stage, the umpire, Kumar Dharmasena, tried to wrap things up. At another, Cook, who had already raised his bat to the crowd in all corners of the ground, shrugged to the India fielders who were in position and waiting the next ball. But still it continued. An expression of relief that Cook's struggles should be rewarded at last and gratitude for the times he has put himself in the line of fire - both on the pitch and off - for the good of the team.

How long did it last? Well, someone, somewhere will no doubt have measured it in minutes and seconds. But the real answer is until Cook knew, knew for certain and for ever, that he would go into retirement appreciated by the supporters of the team he has served with such distinction. It was a long goodbye, for sure, but it was also a perfect one.

"They wouldn't shut up," he said with a smile afterwards. "It was phenomenal. It's been the most surreal four days of my life. Every reception has been incredible.

"I've had bigger innings in more important games that have meant more but, on a purely emotional level, with so many friends and family here, I couldn't have asked for a better week for me.

"People have said that the pressure is off. But, in a funny way, thinking about not getting out for nought or not getting out early every morning, has brought a different type of pressure. It's a nice way to go."

The manner in which he reached the milestone - Jasprit Bumrah gifting four over-throws after Cook jabbed a cut to point - probably added to the elation of the moment. It was so unlikely and, for most of a crowd who had been living and breathing every ball, such a relief that it added a layer of hilarity and drama.

Few would begrudge Cook the bonus. After a summer of trying to negate the Duke's ball and a career trying to negate the fastest and freshest bowlers, he had probably earned a bonus. This was a sort of a 'buy 12,000; get four free' deal; a loyalty reward; a tip.

In registering a century in his final Test innings, Cook managed what Sir Jack Hobbs, Sir Viv Richards and Sir Don Bradman - all of whom also finished their Test careers at this ground - could not. He finished, as he had begun, with a century.

But it wasn't just his score that impressed. It was the manner in which he made the runs and, most importantly, the fact his batting has laid the platform for victory (barring a miracle, anyway) against the world's No. 1 ranked Test side. If he has ever batted with such fluency, it can only have been on that 2010-11 Ashes tour. At times his cover drives bore a hint of David Gower. And there's no higher praise than that.

There will, no doubt, be those who look at the 218 runs he has scored in this game and conclude that he is retiring too early. He's only 33, after all, and it's not as if there are a throng of obvious successors pushing him for his place. But he's having none of it.

"It absolutely confirms the decision in my mind," he said. "My decision was not just the culmination of three or four bad games. It's been coming for 12 to 18 months. It's not just about a bit of bad form; I've been through that before.

"I've spent all my life trying to play for England so to give it up is obviously a big thing. Chasing my dreams and playing for England is all I've ever known. But it was actually a really easy decision for me. Over the last 18 months, things have started to creep into my mind. Once I lost that edge, which has definitely happened in training, that decision was made for me. It's a bit like the captaincy: when you know it's right, it's right.

"It's just time. It's time for me; it's time for my family. It's always nice when people want you just a bit more rather than kicking you out. To go out on my own terms makes it perfect."

Of all the ovations he has received during this game - and a conservative estimate is that he has had 15 standing ovations - there were two that he said stood out. The first was for that century. The other, in the last hour of the day, was led by the Barmy Army trumpeter, Billy Cooper and featured a succession of songs - notably their version of KC and The Sunshine's Band 'Baby Give It Up' - reworked as a tribute to Cook. Lyrically uncomplicated ("Ali, Ali Cook, Ali Cook, Ali, Ali Cook" is about the sum of it), it nevertheless struck a chord for the man at whom it was aimed.

Alastair Cook drivesAFP

"Their support means so much to the players," Cook said. "Hearing your song on one of those tough away days - where we might be in the dirt for 150 overs - is amazing. They know how much we try whether we have a good day or a bad day. I've had unbelievable support from the Barmy Army and those last few minutes were very special."

And that's the key with Cook. Everyone knows there have been those days in the dirt. Months of them at times. Days when he couldn't find a run; days when his team couldn't take a wicket. Days when it seemed English cricket would rip itself apart in a civil war as ugly as it was unnecessary. And on them all, Cook went out first, scratched his guard and tried to lead the way. Cook wasn't the most talented, he wasn't the most flamboyant and he didn't always succeed. But he was decent, hard-working, honest and loyal. He was the old man who never cheated, never doubted. And somewhere along the line, the cricket-loving people of England seem to have connected with those values.

We live in an age when some celebrities hire PR firms to confect a public image; to create a short-cut to respect and popularity. When fame can be achieved by appearing on reality TV and success is measured in the number of Instagram followers. Cook's not like that. He's not on social media. He's not seen at club openings - unless they're cricket clubs - and he's most unlikely to go on Celebrity Big Brother. He married his childhood sweetheart and, on their wedding day, drove her from the church in a tractor. He's more about substance than style.

And, on the ground where Boris Johnson had been soundly booed the previous day, Cook received the sort of standing ovation of which any politician would dream. This grand old ground has witnessed many heartfelt goodbyes to many fine cricketers. But this was special and probably unique. Nobody present will ever forget it.