Cook serves nice starter to take minds off Flintoff woe

Essex 263 West Indies 24-1
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The Independent Online

It lasted only a couple of hours and ended four runs short of a half-century but the sight of Alastair Cook back in business here yesterday was a positive one for England with the summer's first Test little more than a week away. Having already lost the services of Andrew Flintoff, captain Andrew Strauss and team director Andy Flower need no more nasty surprises before tackling the West Indies at Lord's. And the non-appearance of Cook, who fractured his left index finger during a pre-season net session, was becoming a bit of a worry.

Worry eased if not completely removed. After missing two championship games and a one-day match, Cook took his rightful place at the top of the Essex order and, by and large, looked comfortable enough against a touring team attack lacking the firepower of Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor but still packing a decent punch on an initially green-tinged pitch.

True, Cook either grimaced or shook his left hand on several occasions when failing to make perfect contact. Hitting the ball with the middle of the bat appeared to bring him only pleasure, however, and the 24-year-old did that to good effect often enough to suggest there is nothing wrong with his touch. Eight of 80 balls faced reached the boundary, mainly through pulls or drives, while a ninth cleared the rope – Andrew Richardson lifted over mid-wicket.

Richardson, Lionel Baker, Nelon Pascal and Dave Bernard are in competition, most probably, for a single pace-bowling place at Lord's on Wednesday week, assuming Edwards returns unscathed from the Indian Premier League in South Africa and Taylor arrives from the Caribbean with no sign of the hip injury that has so far kept him away. On the evidence of yesterday, advantage Baker. Having played in the final Test of the recent Caribbean series against England, Baker is the man in possession and, while most of his colleagues were shivering on a bright but breezy morning, he was hot enough to rap Jason Gallian's pads with the first ball of the match and have him caught in the slips off the third.

Thereafter, Cook and Varun Chopra made good progress, although the latter survived appeals from Bernard for caught behind and lbw before clipping Richardson to square leg after reaching 50.

Maybe a steel band, providing lunchtime entertainment, put a bit of pep into the Windies. Or perhaps a slightly stronger sun did the trick. Either way, they enjoyed regular success once medium-pacer Darren Sammy persuaded Cook to snick a forward defensive into the safe hands of Devon Smith at second slip.

James Foster, who was deceived by Baker's change of angle, played on, Tom Westley edged spinner Narsingh Deonarine and Grant Flower was run out by Baker – atoning instantly for having failed to go for a top-edged catch at long leg. But for Jaik Mickleburgh's gritty 58 and James Middlebrook's more sprightly 46, Essex would have folded instead of reaching respectability.