By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Alastair Cook, as unflappable as ever, led from the front in the final innings of his record-breaking test career to help steer England into a commanding 154-run lead over India on Sunday.
By the close on day three of the fifth test the hosts were 114-2 in their second innings with Cook set fair on 46 not out and Joe Root on 29 after India had batted their way back into contention thanks to an inspired 86 by Ravindra Jadeja.
Probably the longest and loudest standing ovation heard at the historic Oval ground accompanied Cook to the crease for his 291st and last test knock midway through a sunny, late-summer afternoon in south London.
On Friday India’s players had formed a guard of honour for Cook to mark his farewell test — his 161st.
This time, after Jadeja and debutant Hanuma Vihari had helped the visitors claw their way to within 40 of England’s first-innings 332, they were less welcoming as their seam attack set about trying to uproot his off stump.
Cook rode his luck. It took him 13 nervy balls to get off the mark before a trademark nudge off his legs got him moving. Time and again he played and missed.
Nobody was leaving their seat for fear of missing his final walk back to the pavilion.
While it was far from fluent and he scored only three boundaries, at stumps he looked comfortable and was closing in on his second half century of the match, after his 71 on Friday.
Thirty more runs on Monday would take Cook past Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara’s 12,400 and into fifth on the all-time list.
“Alastair Cook has shown why he’s scored more runs than any other Englishman in this game, it’s been really tough,” England assistant coach Paul Farbrace said.
India had mounted a spirited fightback earlier to limit their first-innings deficit to a modest 40.
Having begun the day in a hole on 174-6 in reply to England’s 332, India eventually made 292 with Vihari justifying his call-up with a battling 56 before nicking one from Moeen Ali to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow.
Jadeja cleverly managed the tail and struck some dazzling boundaries, including a straight six off James Anderson who will have to wait for the three wickets he needs to overtake Australia’s Glenn McGrath’s all-time test record of 563 for a fast bowler.
Just when a first test century beckoned, however, Jadeja needlessly ran out number 11 Jasprit Bumrah to end India’s rearguard action and clear the stage for Cook.
While all eyes were on England’s record run and appearance maker Cook, of greater significance was the form, or lack of it, of fellow opener Keaton Jennings.
He scratched around for 10 before inexplicably offering no shot to a Mohammed Shami delivery to be clean bowled — extending his run of test innings without a 50 to 18.
Once again India’s seam attack bowled with menace and at one stage delivered 31 dot balls before Cook broke the siege.
Moeen did not inspire confidence and was fortunate to survive when his rash drive off Ishant Sharma took a thick edge and flew head high to KL Rahul at second slip but he dropped it.
Cook had just nudged the lead past 100 when India made a timely breakthrough as Jadeja tempted Moeen into a drive and bowled him through the gate out of the rough for 20.
With clutches of wickets falling late on the previous two days India were still in the hunt for a consolation win and their first at the Oval since 1971.
To have any chance of that, however, they will need to bring the curtain down on Cook early on Monday.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Fallon and Ed Osmond)