Cook was statistically England’s most successful batsman in terms of Test runs scored – 12,472 at an average of 45.35 with 33 centuries.
But that was not why he was cheered to the echo in the Kennington sunshine – not once, but several times over in scenes that have rarely, if ever, been witnessed in this country.
Instead, the crowds were cheering for something much more important than statistics and milestones; they were cheering for the manner in which Cook has played the game, the manner in which he has conducted himself in public life and for the decency that he has displayed throughout his career – often in the face of bloodthirsty criticism of his batting and also his captaincy.
Cook was not, as some claim, England’s greatest-ever batsman.
Even in his own generation, Kevin Pietersen was far superior, while the pages of history echo to such names as Hobbs, Hammond and Hutton – and that is without leaving behind the letter ‘H’.
Cook was not particularly stylish to watch or invested with particular grace or charisma; by his own admission, he ground out every ounce of his talent as one might squeeze out every bit of toothpaste from a tube.
But there was something about him that exceeded the sum of his parts, something so evocatively evidenced at the Oval as grown men and women united in lachrymose ovation to one of the game’s greatest champions and also ambassadors.
As those ovations proved, a sportsman’s legacy is vitally important. It is not simply a question of how many runs a player scores, or how many wickets he takes. Pietersen’s legacy, for instance, is a legacy tarnished, one tainted by controversy and the prevailing sense that, great batsman though he was, his record should have been greater still.
It is inconceivable, for example, that had Pietersen exited stage left last week, that the Oval – scene of his greatest triumph in 2005, when he near single-handedly clinched the Ashes – would have given him a comparable send-off to that given Cook.
Even James Anderson, when he finally calls time on his magnificent career, may not be farewelled with quite the same feeling.
True, the ovations to Anderson will be prolonged and brimming with affection, and rightly so, but the on-field snarling and sledging have not been to everyone’s taste, nor that of Stuart Broad, his great bowling partner.
Of course, not everyone has the same character traits as Cook, while aggression has long been part and parcel of a fast bowler’s make-up; Fred Trueman, for example, was not unknown to voice a choice word or several.
But those who played with Trueman, team-mates and opponents, say that his chirping was invariably humorous and never directed. That cannot be said of some who have played international cricket in recent years, when macho posturing and aggression have come to be regarded as a badge of honour.
Sadly, poor on-field behaviour, which reached a peak under Steve Smith’s Australians earlier this year, will be the legacy of too many players. David Warner, for example, is a magnificent batsman, but that will only be part of his story when he retires along with the history of sledging and spite.
What, too, will be the legacy of Ben Stokes when he finally hangs up his whites? Great player and team-mate, certainly, but no matter how many runs and wickets Stokes ends up with, he will never quite shake off that night out in Bristol, even though a criminal court cleared him of affray. With no disrespect to Stokes, Warner, Pietersen, etc, it is inconceivable that Cook would have found himself caught up in comparable antics/behaviours.
He is surely not whiter than white – who is? – but it is hard to imagine Cook wandering around in the early hours of the morning outside a Bristol nightclub, or sledging opponents with vitriolic fervour.
Cook’s legacy is not just that of a very good player, but a man who carried himself in an upstanding manner no matter how tough the tough times became.
That fact was recognised by the crowds at the Oval, who gave him a send-off that should serve as a lesson to every sportsman.