As Alastair Cook walked off The Oval for the final time on day one, he smiled. Cook doesn't smile a lot, but here he was in the rain, at four down, not completely in control of the game, or his innings, and he was smiling.

Cook's innings was, as always, full of squidges to backward point and nudges to backward square. He got off the mark with a thick edge. It took him 33 balls to move from 45 to 50. He left 60 of his 200 deliveries. He started today with a nudge off his hip and an edge short of slip. Even for a batsman who doesn't usually make batting look easy, this seemed like hard innings.

The ball moved in the air, it moved off the pitch, and at one stage there were 14 runs scored from 14.5 overs. When South Africa got their rhythm, it seemed like most of the time they were grasping at the air in disappointment at another near miss.

Vernon Philander made the English batsmen sicker than he was yesterday. But Cook fought it. He virtually didn't play a shot to Philander when the ball wasn't pitching on the stumps. He has barely driven at all in this series, CricViz recording it as under 6%. And yesterday if he was going to drive it wasn't going to be off Philander. It was 42 overs into the day when he nailed his first drive off Philander, which ended up being also the first boundary off him.

Cook always plays within a shell, but on occasions he finds an inner shell to retreat to. Cook hasn't scored a hundred against South Africa since 2012, he averages less against them - 36.36 - even after this innings, than against any other team. That is why this was an important innings for him, as much as it was for the team. He held the top order together with sticky tape, and on a day that could have been disastrous for England, made a decent score.

When Cook walked off the ground last night, the dressing room rose as he entered just to clap him in. Today, when the big screen showed his DRS, 20,000 people went completely silent, hoping for an edge, or too much height. In the current Trevor Bayliss inspired batting line up, Cook is something special. This was just an 88, and so there were no smiles today. But Cook's knock has given England a chance of going back in front this series.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber