For more than 12 years, Alastair Cook
has reliably carried the hopes and expectations of England's Test batting at the top of the order. On his last day in the job as a Test opener, he was not about to let anyone down - certainly not the 19,500 who had streamed into The Oval to witness his final act, after 161 Tests and 291 innings. Cook's scriptwriters duly did the occasion justice, as he became the fifth man in the history of the game to begin and end his Test career with a century.
For a player who has built an unparalleled record for England via the unobtrusive accumulation of nudges and cuts, going repeatedly to the well as batsman and captain, here was a chance to simply enjoy the moment - or rather several moments, as the ovations stacked up, beginning with his walk down the stairs and to the middle to resume on his overnight score of 46 not out. With the series won and England already in a strong position in the fifth and final Test, English cricket could indulge in a send-off worthy of a great player and a great servant.
There was further applause after the first ball of the second over, as Cook clipped the boundary that brought him his second fifty of the match - as well as ensuring that his final Test average would bob back above 45. They were on their feet again an hour into the morning session, as Cook reached 76 and surpassed Kumar Sangakkara to go fifth on the all-time Test run-scoring list.
When the hundred came, as it inevitably did shortly before lunch, the ovation lasted for several minutes as play stopped completely. That it had arrived via overthrows, after Cook had dabbed a single behind square for the umpteenth time in his career, mattered not a jot - in fact, there was a certain synchronicity with the moment in 2010, also at The Oval, when Mohammad Asif's wayward arm presented Cook with a 13th Test hundred and set him up for the Ashes series that cemented his legend.
The contrast was in the carefree manner of Cook's 33rd ton in England whites, as he repeated the feat of his 2006 debut in Nagpur. The crowd rose as he returned to the dressing rooms at lunch, alongside his successor as captain, Joe Root
, just eight runs away from a century of his own, and they cheered him to the skies when he finally fell for 147 during the afternoon session - failure to record one last "daddy hundred" a forgivable blemish.
Still there was more, as Root urged Cook to lead England out on to the field one more time, following their declaration; and as the shadows lengthened, with India three-down chasing a notional target of 464, the chants started up again: "Ali Cook, Ali Cook, Ali, Ali Cook!"
Briefly, during the evening, some of the other protagonists intruded. James Anderson
, the only man involved around Test cricket longer than Cook, drew level with Glenn McGrath's record of 563 wickets for a fast bowler by ripping out Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara in the space of four balls. Stuart Broad then produced a roar to rival those directed at Cook when he had Virat Kohli caught behind for a golden duck, leaving India 2 for 3 and in danger of an ignominious end to a tour that promised so much.
That was as dramatic as the day got, India's fourth-wicket pair charting a way to the close - KL Rahul attacking to produce his highest score of the series, while Ajinkya Rahane focused on preserving his wicket. It seemed as if the fight had finally gone out of India during the 259-run stand between Cook and Root, and they face an almighty effort to rouse themselves for a fifth-day rearguard to salvage a draw.
Root's hundred was a mere subplot, though it should have more significance for England's future as he ended a 13-month wait to reach three figures in a Test. He was dropped on 46 - a sharp chance off Ravindra Jadeja to Rahane at slip - and threatened to upstage Cook as he upped the scoring during the morning, striking Jadeja for a straight six and sweeping with precision; but he ceded the stage as Cook's landmark quickly approached, only four legitimate balls required to negotiate the not-so-nervous final-Test-innings 90s.
Jasprit Bumrah wrote himself into the story as a footnote, when he picked up the ball at backward point and hurled it beyond the reach of any of his team-mates, allowing Cook to turn and celebrate an unexpected gift on a day of surround-sound hero worship from the majority of people in the ground.
Like Reggie Duff, Bill Ponsford, Greg Chappell and Mohammad Azharuddin before him, Cook had a hundred in his final Test to go with one on debut. Like his Essex mucker and predecessor as captain, Nasser Hussain, he had crafted the perfect farewell
After the lunch interval, India contrived to drop Root again, Pujara shelling a simpler chance at first slip off Mohammed Shami - though he was not helped by Rishabh Pant's dive across him - before a scampered single brought another opportunity for the crowd to erupt. Hanuma Vihari added unexpected success with the ball to his impressive batting debut, dismissing Root and Cook with successive deliveries as India chipped away during the afternoon, but the pattern of proceedings had long been set. India will have to summon untapped reserves if the final day at The Oval is not to end with Cook - and England - being raucously cheered from the field one last time.
Alan Gardner is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick