Cook must play long game as he steps up to lead from front

New England captain's reputation will be built on his own performance as opener when the tourists face a torrid time against India's spin attack

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The Independent Online

Alastair Cook's international career was enshrined in the journey which started it. He was in St John's, Antigua, when he was summoned to Nagpur, India, a distance of 8,658.8 miles.

As he described it at the time: "At lunchtime on the Friday I was told I might be going to India. I flew out that night and got to London about five o'clock in the morning and 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.

Two days later, jet-lagged but unfazed, he was opening the batting in the first Test of the series and made a stoic 60. Three days after that he became the youngest debutant to score a hundred for England. Only three players, two of whom were Denis Compton and Len Hutton in their second matches, had made a hundred when they were younger than Cook's 21 years and 69 days.

Given that evidence, it was reasonable to suppose that Cook had a future of sorts. Six years and seven months on he is returning to India as England's new captain, the promise of those embryonic days all fulfilled.

Cook has played in 82 more Test matches, he has scored 6,555 runs with 19 additional centuries, at an average of 47.85, most of it done with the cussedness required to go to work hours after crossing the world. He is assuming the captaincy at two months short of his 28th birthday, perhaps the perfect age, neither too young nor too old. What is not to like?

According to his friend and team-mate Graeme Swann, Cook has been virtually groomed for the role since he was a boy chorister as St Paul's Cathedral and took up a music scholarship at Bedford School. Not quite, but it is at least three years since he was earmarked as Andrew Strauss's eventual successor. Of course, the job might have passed him by. Had Strauss retained his form and appetite he might have gone on until next winter's Ashes series, which had always seemed to be the intention. By then, others might have come to the fore, or the rhythm of the dressing room shifted.

Strauss, with his innate wisdom, recognised that it was time for him to go, but probably he also saw that it was time for Cook to succeed. It is invariably exciting when a new captain of England steps out for the first time. An era dawns, the sense of anticipation is boundless even when the appointment was as inevitable as this one.

Despite the sense that it is appropriate, Strauss is a hard act to follow for Cook and while there is no easy place to start, India would not necessarily be the first choice. England have not won a series there since 1985, under David Gower, and have lost three of the past four.

They secured an improbable draw with Andrew Flintoff at the helm on that very tour where Cook made his bow. The victory at Mumbai which levelled the series at 1-1 became known as the "Ring of Fire" Test after the Johnny Cash song which England played constantly in the dressing room to remind them of the dangers of spicy foods.

A drawn series with any musical accompaniment may not be the limit of England's aspirations this time, but it would still be a veritable triumph. India may be a side in transition, uncertain of the status of Test cricket, but they have not lost a series at home for eight years, when Australia prevailed, and that remains their sole defeat in 21 rubbers.

For England to prosper, so must Cook both as batsman and captain. Indeed the former might shape how he does as the latter. Above all, unfor-tunately, he will have to deal with the sideshow of Kevin Pietersen.

This is an unavoidable diversion. England would like the whole affair to be ignored and forgotten, but it was they who dropped Pietersen and insisted he undergo a process of reintegration. It will dominate the tour. At least Cook has made it plain he wants Pietersen in his team.

Cook led England in a two-match series in Bangladesh in 2010 when Strauss took a rest. If that is any guide he will thrive on leadership, since he made hundreds in both matches.

His recent form, however, has been up and down, and more often down than up. Cook can never hope to match his resplendent form in Australia two winters ago, when he made 766 runs in seven innings in England's epic triumph, but he has made only one hundred in his past 22 innings and has been out nine times in single figures.

Whoever goes out to bat with him, Cook will have to assume the lead in every way. He will be responsible not only for scoring the bulk of the runs at the top of the order but also for setting the tempo of the innings.

Joe Root, the 21-year-old Yorkshireman, is the early favourite to accompany him. While Nick Compton, grandson of Denis, is also in the frame, there would be an element of perversity in not choosing Root since he was deemed good enough for the squad and for two years has been anointed as the next big thing.

If Cook can get runs it will ease the burdens of captaincy immediately. Fail early and the job will become impossible.

He is sensible enough to be his own man. His chief attribute will be that which defines his batting, endless patience. Cook will see a plan through to the end, playing the long game, as he did from the start in Nagpur.

Whether he has the indefinable inspirational quality of the best captains – Mike Brearley, Michael Vaughan at his peak, Nasser Hussain in a more bludgeoning way, Strauss perhaps most formidably of all – will soon be known. Again, runs of his own will help to fuel it.

There are four Tests, more than England have played on tour in India since their win 27 years ago, which is at least a sign that India have not given up completely on Test cricket (or that England refused to let them).

The first two are in Ahmedabad and Mumbai because they were deprived of the matches at the last minute four years ago when terrorists struck in Mumbai. The tour was suspended and when it was hastily rearranged the venues were altered to Chennai and Mohali simply because of the volatility of the other two places. The other two Tests this time are being played in Mohali again and Kolkata.

Spin can be expected to play an integral part in the outcome of affairs, and it is notable that India have declined to pick a spinner for their A team to play the tourists in the final warm-up match. It is a sure sign that they are going to unload it with both barrels when the real business begins.

England's recent record in Asia suggests that they have no chance of repelling it. Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, their likely adversaries, may not amount to Saeed Ajmal, England's nemesis earlier this year, but they have learned quickly and at this distance it is likely they will have the final word. It will be up to Cook to decree otherwise.

Test squad

Alastair Cook (Essex, capt)

James Anderson (Lancashire)

Jonny Bairstow (Yorkshire)

Ian Bell (Warwickshire)

Tim Bresnan (Yorkshire)

Stuart Broad (Notts)

Nick Compton (Somerset)

Steven Finn (Middlesex)

Graham Onions (Durham)

Eoin Morgan (Middlesex)

Monty Panesar (Sussex)

Samit Patel (Notts)

Kevin Pietersen (Surrey)

Matt Prior (Sussex)

Joe Root (Yorkshire)

Graeme Swann (Notts)

Jonathan Trott (Warwickshire)