Cook makes history to turn heat on India

Extraordinary debut century complements Pietersen pyrotechnics to give tourists sniff of victory

Alastair Cook yesterday scored a hundred in his first Test match for England. It was as composed and orderly as a state occasion and given the circumstances that preceded it was utterly extraordinary.

At 21 years and 69 days old, Cook is the youngest player to have reached the landmark on debut and the 16th to do so in all for England. Only three men, all in their second match, have made a hundred at a younger age and since two of them were Denis Compton and Len Hutton, enduring legends of the game, it would be reasonable to suppose that Cook has a future of sorts.

So much for the bare figures, which as usual tell all of the story and none of it. Cook, a left-hander who is 6ft 4in tall, conducted himself with unflustered dignity and a determined maturity both during his innings and afterwards in a media inquisition of the sort that neither Compton nor Sir Leonard would have had to face. There was nothing extravagant about either event but then he is not an extravagant young man, and the only flashy parts of the entire proceedings were attached to cameras.

Cook joined the England party only last Sunday after flying from Antigua where, two days earlier, he had been pulled out of England A's Test against West Indies after batting in the first innings. Maybe it was the after-effects of jet lag that assisted his measured strategy, more likely it was his methodical approach to his trade.

Having made 60 in the first innings, he was perfectly clinical in hunting down the landmark, and the pace at which he played perfectly suited England's cause. To note that he was one-paced is to celebrate a considerable virtue on this occasion, not promote a quibble. Only when he approached his hundred did he inject a little improvisation into his game - he was dropped at 70 and 91 - but that was probably for the team as much as himself as well. Both he and they needed runs before the close of the fourth day.

The tourists finished beyond defeat barring the improbable and the spectacular, and the fact that they had been able to play around Cook had largely enabled them to reach that position. He and Andrew Strauss shared a stand of 95 for the first wicket - to follow their 56 in the first innings - before he and Kevin Pietersen put on 124 for the third, of which Pietersen's share was 87 from 110 balls.

As Cook and Pietersen went about their business, it was impossible not to compare and contrast. Cook is a former choirboy who once sang in St Paul's Cathedral and won a musical scholarship to Bedford School. Pietersen, at least before he recently shaved his head, thus removing the white stripe he sported in the middle of a mane of dark hair, has often looked one audition away from landing a job as lead singer in a grunge band. How they complemented each other.

Pietersen can play no other way but dangerously. He thrives on it. It has become his fuel. The controlled fury of his performance meant England were able to build a lead which more or less guaranteed them against defeat. Had he stayed in, they might have been able to declare yesterday evening and try to remove an Indian batsman or two before the close.

But that is never likely to happen with Pietersen. Between bashing 11 of his 14 fours into the leg side, he had already survived precariously. An appeal for a return catch to Anil Kumble when he was 36 was referred to third umpire Ivaturi Shivaran and rejected, although it looked much more out than in. He was then dropped on 50 when the debutant Sree Sreesanth misjudged a miscued drive to cover.

While Pietersen was all bottom hand and preening flamboyance, Cook more or less stood and admired. Between lunch and tea he added only 18 runs to his score. It was smart batting, and from one of such tender experience it was remarkable.

Eight days earlier, Cook had opened the innings for England A in their first Test match in Antigua. Caught at the wicket off Tino Best with the new ball, he was told at lunchtime that his late winter cricketing arrangements were being changed, along with those of his A colleague, Jimmy Anderson.

"At lunchtime on the Friday I was told I might be going to India," he said. "I flew out that night and got to London about five o'clock [in the morning], transferred to Heathrow by around 11, waited there for seven hours and flew out on the 9pm flight. We reached Bombay about 11am, had seven hours there, and flew out to Nagpur for about 9pm last Sunday night." Phew.

The last 21-year-old to make a hundred for England was David Gower in 1978. The other one younger than Cook was Jack Hearne, of Middlesex, who played only 24 times for England but was one of the game's great all-rounders. Cook might have something else in common with Hearne by being the most immaculately attired player of his generation.

Keith Fletcher, the former Essex and England captain, said that the 15-year-old Cook was the best young player he had ever seen, which is some billing to try to live up to.

Cook's major strength is off his legs, where he clips and glances shrewdly. But all the boundaries in his innings came on the off side, mostly with correct drives through the cover area. None became him more than the textbook shot he struck there to take him from 91 to 95.

Soon afterwards, he gave a chance to slip, as the day was rapidly drawing to a close, and it was possible to start thinking the chance of a hundred might elude him.

Just as 48 of his runs came in off-side boundaries, 47 of his scoring strokes yielded singles, most of these on the leg side. Last summer he scored 248 in a two-day match against Australia. It spoke to the world but it also said much to Cook about what he was capable of and here yesterday he revealed something of what it was. There could be untold riches to come.

Young Guns: England's youngest centurions

Denis Compton 20 years 19 days; v Australia, 1938

Jack Hearne 20 years 323 days; v Australia, 1911

Len Hutton 21 years 31 days; v New Zealand, 1937

Alastair Cook 21 years 69 days, v India, 2006

David Gower 21 years 118 days, v New Zealand, 1978

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