England 246-7 India: Cook comes of age but England throw away early advantage

For 71 minutes it appeared as though a depleted England had put the turmoil of the previous week behind them. Andrew Flintoff, the stand-in captain, had won a crucial toss, while Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, one of three players making their debut for the tourists, had seen off the new ball.

England's openers had taken the score to 56 when Strauss drove rashly at a widish ball from Sri Sreesanth and was superbly caught by VVS Laxman at second slip. From that moment, India seized control of an absorbing day and by the close England had been reduced to 246 for 7.

England will be desperately disappointed not to have capitalised more on winning the toss on a lifeless pitch that is likely to be far harder to bat on in their second innings. Whether England are still in the first Test when Strauss and Cook strap their pads on again will depend on Paul Collingwood's capacity to eke out 100 more runs with the tail, and the bowlers' ability to put India's majestic batting line-up under pressure.

Any team would struggle to cope with the loss of three key players, but England ought to be in a better position than they are. Strauss was not the only batsmen to get out to a loose shot. Kevin Pietersen bottom-edged an ambitious pull on to his leg stump and Ian Blackwell, whose selection owed as much to his batting as his spin bowling, had a horrible waft at an innocuous delivery and chopped on.

There were at least a couple of reasons for England supporters to feel optimistic. Collingwood batted with grit and determination for his unbeaten 53 and Flintoff seemed unaffected by the stresses of captaincy.

However, the most notable performance was that of Cook. He was dreaming of scoring runs for England A in the Caribbean a week ago until the problems of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan catapulted him across three continents and into the furnace of the Vidarbha Stadium.

Cook's preparations for the biggest day of his life have been far from ideal - two days in transit and two days acclimatising - and nobody would have criticised the tall left-hander had he looked scratchy and nervous. Yet from the first ball he faced he looked composed and organised. His footwork was purposeful and his first Test runs came off the fifth legitimate ball he faced, when he pulled Sreesanth, another debutant, for four.

Cook bears a close resemblance to Stephen Fleming, the New Zealand captain, at the crease and he played several crunching strokes through the off-side as England rattled along at five runs an over.

Their dismissive treatment of the new ball forced Rahul Dravid, the Indian captain, to bring Harbhajan Singh into the attack at the end of the ninth over. The introduction of the spinner had the desired effect, in that runs became harder to score, and Strauss, attempting to keep England's momentum going, went after a ball he should have left alone.

It gave Sreesanth his first Test wicket and Harbhajan gained his reward nine overs later when a drifter flicked the outside edge of Ian Bell's defensive prod and was brilliantly caught by Dravid at slip.

Pietersen threatened to get after the spinners, twice clipping Anil Kumble for four, but he curbed his natural game until Sreesanth returned.

Sreesanth is an intelligent bowler for a 22-year-old. Throughout the day he changed his pace and used the crease well. He also swung both the new and old ball. A lack of height may prevent him from developing into a world beater but Sreesanth had an excellent first day.

He should have had Pietersen out four balls sooner than he did but Laxman fumbled a low catch at second slip. Yet a grimace quickly turned to a smile when Pietersen played on.

Cook, meanwhile, continued to compile his runs. Like many young batsmen he looks uncomfortable against spin but he played to his limitations and collected his fifty with a deflected single off Harbhajan. His dismissal, edging a tired drive at Irfan Pathan on to his stumps, would have disappointed him but England had every right to feel they had seen a future Test star at work.

With his side in trouble on 136 for 4, Flintoff strode purposefully to the crease. The captain's first dozen runs were understandably edgy - on his last tour here in 2001 he scored only 26 runs in five innings. After the tea interval he began to move with confidence. Sreesanth was powerfully driven and pulled for four, and Kumble was smashed back over his head.

Flintoff's fun ended when umpire Ian Howell adjudged him lbw to Kumble. The decision was not an absolute shocker but it may well have missed leg stump. Flintoff, on 43, was 14 runs short of Ian Botham's score when he captained England for the first time against West Indies at Trent Bridge in 1980, yet it is hoped his form does not follow that of the great man. Botham failed to pass 40 in his next 20 innings as captain, and averaged just 13 with the bat whilst in charge.

Pathan's inswing accounted for the wicket of Geraint Jones, and Blackwell may well regret the soft manner in which he got out when he is bowling at Messrs Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Dhoni over the next two days.

Nagpur scoreboard

England won toss; first day of five

England - First Innings

A J Strauss c Laxman b Sreesanth 28 71 min, 64 balls, 5 fours

A N Cook b Pathan 60 205 min, 160 balls, 7 fours

I R Bell c Dravid b Harbhajan Singh 9 36 min, 28 balls, 2 fours

K P Pietersen b Sreesanth 15 50 min, 33 balls, 2 fours

P D Collingwood not out 53 196 min, 145 balls, 7 fours, 1 six

* A Flintoff lbw b Kumble 43 83 min, 70 balls, 6 fours

ÝG O Jones lbw b Pathan 14 31 min, 30 balls, 3 fours

I D Blackwell b Pathan 4 20 min, 16 balls

M J Hoggard not out 0 13 min, 6 balls

Extras (b1 lb6 w1 nb12) 20

Total (for 7, 358 min, 90 overs) 246

Fall: 1-56 (Strauss) 2-81 (Bell) 3-110 (Pietersen) 4-136 (Cook) 5-203 Flintoff) 6-225 (Jones) 7-244 (Blackwell).

To bat: S J Harmison, M S Panesar.

Bowling: Pathan 17-5-52-3 (nb7) (7-3-25-0, 5-1-22-1, 5-1-5-2); Sreesanth 18-4-56-2 (nb2 w1) (4-0-22-0, 4-2-10-1, 4-1-7-1, 5-1-16-0, 1-0-1-0); Harbhajan Singh 26-4-59-1 (15-2-30-1, 11-2-29-0); Kumble 27-9-61-1 (nb3) (8-2-21-0, 8-3-10-0, 11-4-30-1); Tendulkar 2-0-11-0 (one spell).

Progress: First day: 50: 52 min, 11.4 overs. Lunch: 89-2 (Cook 44, Pietersen 1) 29 overs. 100: 136 min, 34.3 overs. 150: 222 min, 55 overs. Tea: 157-4 (Collingwood 22, Flintoff 11) 59 overs. 200: 284 min, 70.5 overs.

Cook's 50: 146 min, 113 balls, 6 fours. Collingwood's 50: 172 min, 131 balls, 7 fours, 1 six.

India: V Sehwag, W Jaffer, * R S Dravid, S R Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, M Kaif, ÝM S Dhoni, I K Pathan, A Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, S Sreesanth.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and I L Howell (SA).

TV replay umpire: I Shivram.

Match referee: R S Madugalle.

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