Day of buffet bowling is meat and drink for classy Cook

Opener helps himself to 20th Test century as South African attack is strangely subdued

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The Independent Online

So much for the idea that fast bowling would dominate this match. Spectators arrived here expecting fireworks from Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, but they were treated instead to the steady glow of an Alastair Cook hundred, his 20th in Tests.

Cook's composure was never disturbed as he moved level with Graham Gooch, England's batting coach and Cook's guide and inspiration for many years, in the list of Test century-makers. In his 81st Test, Cook also joined Ken Barrington and Kevin Pietersen on 20 hundreds, and now only four England players are ahead of him. Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoffrey Boycott have 22 Test centuries, and Andrew Strauss, the Test captain, one fewer.

It was a happy moment in a week that started in sadness for Cook, who attended the funeral of David Randall, a friend and team-mate in his younger days at Maldon Cricket Club in Essex.

On an easy-paced pitch at The Oval, Cook was relentless, giving his team a position of early dominance in the opening game of the three-match series. "It's an emotional time," Cook said. "When you score hundreds, the emotions are right up there. We're very lucky to play cricket and unfortunately [David] can't any more.

"It's nice to join Goochie on 20 hundreds. He was a great player and to have made the same number of centuries as him is very special. I've not had a century since the 294 against India at Edgbaston last year and I've got out in the nineties since then, which is frustrating.

"Every little landmark is important. I remember going from nine Test hundreds to 10, and this feels similar, especially after waiting a while. It's very comforting to look around the dressing room and see people who have scored a lot of Test hundreds. It can breed confidence."

Cook was as undemonstrative as ever at the crease and it was appropriate that he should reach three figures with a low-key push into the off side from South Africa's leg-spinner Imran Tahir. By the close, the opener was 114 not out, having batted through the day at his own pace and on his own terms. Strauss was out for a duck in the first over but Jonathan Trott and Pietersen gave the vice-captain important support, creating a challenging opening day for South Africa captain Graeme Smith, who is playing his 100th Test.

A maximum of 14 days remain in this series and it is impossible to imagine that the pace bowlers will be kept quiet throughout. From Steyn to Jimmy Anderson, from Morkel to Stuart Broad, there is so much explosive talent in these teams. Yet as Cook and Trott reminded us, the batsmen aren't bad, either.

This was the seventh stand of more than 100 that Cook and Trott have constructed in Tests. When the pitch is slow and there is plenty of time to bat, there can be few pairings as reliable as this one.

After a delayed start, Strauss fell to the fourth ball of the day, lbw to Morkel on review. If South Africa sensed an opening, they had not given proper consideration to England's limpets.

A Trott-Cook combination is not designed to thrill, yet to criticise these two for their lack of spectacular strokes is to miss the point. Pietersen, Ian Bell and Matt Prior are the men required to attack. It is the role of Cook and Trott to give the middle order freedom and, as they have on several occasions, they performed it excellently yesterday.

Last time these teams met in a Test match, England were torn apart at the Wanderers, Johannesburg, in January 2010. Conditions just south of the Thames were very different, yet it was still surprising to see South Africa's attack so subdued, their approach so conservative.

Some batsmen, such as Pietersen, can be teased into a mistake if a bowler maintains a consistent line outside off stump. For the most part, Trott and Cook will simply watch the ball fly past them to the wicketkeeper. The strategy did eventually bear fruit, however, when Trott was caught behind after Morkel tempted him to drive but by that time, he and Cook had added 170 for the second wicket.

Vernon Philander, rather than Steyn, shared the new ball with Morkel, a surprise given Steyn's place at the top of the ICC's rankings for Test bowlers. South Africa need to win this series to replace England as the No 1 Test team and, yesterday, they learned how difficult the task will be. Since South Africa won 2-1 here four years ago, England have prevailed in seven consecutive Test series in this country.

Steyn had tape on his elbow and had treatment to his right ankle during a drinks break, yet bowling coach Allan Donald insisted: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with Dale. He is absolutely fine." Steyn's menace will surely grow as the match and the series advance but his frustration was clear when, during a brief spell off the field, he appeared to be expressing his views angrily towards coach Gary Kirsten. Then, on his way back from the pavilion, Steyn nearly lost his footing on the stairs.

Pietersen's future in the international limited-overs game was at the centre of attention before this match but England's most dangerous batsman was unable to make the same impression when he batted. Pietersen was a little lucky early in his innings and after moving to 42, he gloved a short delivery from Jacques Kallis through to the wicketkeeper, two balls before the new ball would become available.

Timeline: How England marched ahead at The Oval

11.15am start

An early-morning shower delays the toss but Graeme Smith calls incorrectly and so Andrew Strauss decides to bat first on a hard pitch, despite the cloud cover. Ravi Bopara returns at No 6.

11.18am Wicket. England 0-1, Strauss 0

The England captain is out for a duck from the fourth ball. Morne Morkel hits Strauss on the knee roll, and it is lbw on appeal.

1.01pm Lunch. England 70-1

Despite the early disaster, England fight back with their usual application. Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, the masters of batting time, have not even been that troubled.

2.12pm England 103-1

Cook brings up the century stand – his fifth with Trott – with a sneer. Another Imran Tahir long-hop, this one a no-ball too, is deservedly sent to the midwicket boundary. Cook himself reaches 50.

3.10pm England 135-1

Trott's hard work, going at his characteristic pace, is rewarded as a cut through point from a short and wide Jacques Kallis delivery brings up his 50.

3.44pm Tea. England 158-1

A session which is unambiguously England's ends with Cook and Trott looking as focused and unworried as ever. South Africa's attack has asked very few questions.

4.20pm Wicket. England 170-2, Trott 71

An uncharacteristic waft outside the off-stump marks the end for Trott, who edges Morkel to AB De Villiers behind the stumps. How angry Trott must be to miss out on a ton.

5.22pm England 218-2

Cook reaches his 20th Test century – remarkable at the age of just 27 – pushing for a single, which also brings up the 50 stand with Kevin Pietersen.

6.00pm Wicket. England 251-3, Pietersen 42

Despite looking commanding, Pietersen attempts a hook off a short ball from Kallis and the ball flies down leg side into De Villiers' gloves.

The Oval scoreboard

The Kia Oval (first day of five): England have scored 267 for 3 wickets against South Africa; England won toss

England: First innings

*A J Strauss lbw b Morkel 0, 4 balls 0 sixes 0 fours

A N Cook not out 114, 283 balls 1 six 11 fours

I J L Trott c de Villiers b Morkel 71, 162 balls 0 sixes 9 fours

K P Pietersen c de Villiers b Kallis 42, 72 balls 0 sixes 4 fours

I R Bell not out 10, 29 balls 0 sixes 2 fours

Extras (b2 lb16 w2 nb10) 30

Total (for 3, 90 overs) 267

Fall 0, 170, 251.

To bat R S Bopara, †M J Prior, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson.

Bowler spells M Morkel: 18-2-44-2 (3nb, 1wd) (5-0-18-1; 5-1-9-0; 4-0-13-1; 4-1-4-0), VD Philander: 16-2-48-0 (5nb) (6-0-14-0; 5-2-14-0; 2-0-9-0; 3-0-11-0), DW Steyn: 21-5-62-0 (6-1-17-0; 3-1-12-0; 4-1-10-0; 4-1-12-0; 4-1-11-0), JH Kallis: 14-3-34-1 (1wd) (5-1-13-0; 5-0-11-0; 4-2-10-1), Imran Tahir: 15-0-51-0 (2nb) (1-0-1-0; 8-0-24-0; 1-0-4-0; 5-0-22-0), JP Duminy: 6-1-10-0 (2-0-3-0; 4-1-7-0)

South Africa *G C Smith, A N Petersen, H M Amla, J H Kallis, †A B de Villiers, J A Rudolph, J P Duminy, V D Philander, D W Steyn, M Morkel, Imran Tahir.

Test Progress Day One: England 50 runs in 15.5 overs, Lunch: 70-1 in 23 overs (Cook 33, Trott 27), 100 runs in 30.2 overs, Cook 50 off 98 balls (7 fours, 1 six), Trott 50 off 127 balls (6 fours), 150 runs in 50.5 overs, Tea: 158-1 in 53 overs (Cook 69, Trott 68), 200 runs in 65.5 overs, Cook 100 off 222 balls (11 fours, 1 six) 250 runs in 79.2 overs, Close: 267-3 in 90 overs (Cook 114, Bell 10).

Umpires Asad Rauf (Pak) & S J Davis (Aus)

TV umpire HDPK Dharmasena (SL)

Match referee J J Crowe (NZ)