Cook ready to make most of surprise opening

One Friday night last summer, Alastair Cook stayed up late to receive an award in London as the Cricket Writers' young player of the year. The next day, having reached the Essex village of Wickham Bishops in the small hours, he scored 214 from 238 balls against the Australians.

If he can survive and prosper in those circumstances - first running the gauntlet of a massed bunch of reporters and then having insufficient sleep before facing a bowling attack desperate to make a point five days before the Test that would decide the Ashes - a little matter of residual jet lag after flying from one side of the world to the other to face two of the best spinners on the planet is definitely surmountable.

Cook, summoned to Nagpur from an England A Test in Antigua, will become the 26th youngest player to represent England. At 21 years and 66 days (he shares a Christmas Day birthday with Marcus Trescothick, the man he replaces in the team) Cook will be five days older than David Gower was against Pakistan in 1978. If he can hit his first ball for four and go on to make 58 (not to mention another 8,173 runs in Test cricket), England will be satisfied.

Playing for England has always been a case of when not if for the left-handed Cook, and if some judges think the when has come too soon, they were perhaps being protective. The most pertinent note of caution was sounded yesterday by Graham Gooch, the former England batsman who is now the Essex batting coach. "He is not the finished article, he's only 21 and he's still got a lot to learn, but he's a quick learner and he's got a great attitude," said Gooch. "His rise has been quite rapid and I'm confident he'll be able to handle the conditions out there."

Gooch was 21 (and 352 days) when he won his first Test cap, which turned out to be too young because he bagged a pair against Australia. He then spent three years in county rehabilitation before eventually re-emerging as one of the best of all England's batsmen.

Perhaps then it is not ideal for Cook to be playing now and the circumstances - with members of the original squad falling over quicker than members of England's rugby team being tackled by Scotsmen - could hardly be less auspicious. But he handles himself placidly and maturely.

"If you are playing for England and making your Test debut you will be up for anything," he said. "It has been a bit of a trek and I'm a bit jet-lagged from all the travel but once the day comes I'll be fine."

Cook first played for Essex in 2003 and last summer scored five first-class centuries. But it was the sixth hundred which turned heads and raised eyebrows. It did not count as first class in strictly statistical terms because Essex's match against the Australians was over two days. But it met the requirements of every other sense of the phrase.

He played some coruscating, beautifully economical shots all round the wicket. Off his legs he was impeccable. The Australians could not contain him and the general consensus that he is not yet proficient against spin was barely tested by the tourists' reserve leg spinner Stuart MacGill who took 0 for 128. Australia recognised a star in the making.

Cook broke all records at Bedford School, but his scholarship there was for music not cricket (he plays piano and saxophone).

Tony Greig, the former England captain who presented him with this young cricketer award, brought the house down by saying: "Forget the music and get on with the batting." If Cook gets on with the batting in Nagpur, it might be worthwhile belting out a tune or two.

l England's injury troubles in India have provided Ravinder Bopara, Stuart Broad and Luke Wright with call-ups to the A squad in the West Indies. Injuries and unavailability concerning the likes of the England captain, Michael Vaughan, and his deputy, Marcus Trescothick, on the subcontinent have forced the selectors to summon Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Owais Shah from the Caribbean. The beneficiaries have been Cook's fellow Essex youngster Bopara, the Leicestershire bowling all-rounder Broad - son of former England opener Chris - and Sussex all-rounder Wright.

Indian signs Where the first Test will be won and lost

* THE FIRST INNINGS

England need to score more than 400 in their first innings if they are to have any chance of avoiding defeat in this opening encounter. If they lose the toss, the bowlers cannot feel sorry for themselves and allow the inevitable happen. If India manage to score 500, it will become very difficult for England to remain competitive no matter how well the pitch may be playing.

* CONTROLLED BOWLING

Nasser Hussain's defensive tactics in 2001 were unpopular but they worked. Hussain had an inexperienced bowling attack that kept India's star-studded batting line-up under control. Passionate crowds place India's batsmen under pressure. They want their stars to entertain them, and if England can prevent them finding the boundary, they may just succumb.

Condition check

* PITCH REPORT

Clear blue skies and a hot sun will ensure every last bit of moisture is sucked out of the pitch before the start of play. There is hardly a blade of grass on it and pacemen will struggle to get the ball above chest height. It will turn, but how soon? England need it to hold together for at least three days.

* WEATHER FORECAST

There will be little change in the weather during the first Test in Nagpur, where it will be very hot and dry. Temperatures will reach 34C tomorrow and up to 33C on Thursday, Friday and over the weekend. Increasing levels of humidity may help the ball to swing in the later stages of the match.

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