Mark Butcher: For Cook it's just like batting in Essex
England's debutant centurion seems unflappable in heat of battle and is made of the right stuff
Sunday 05 March 2006
Alastair Cook must have had Jack Johnson playing on an iPod inside his helmet when he went out to bat at Nagpur, he looked so relaxed.
The week before, playing for England A in the Caribbean, it was probably a case of "Sitting waiting wishing". But 164 runs and 403 balls later, he was definitely one of the "Good people".
I had not seen a lot of Cook, but nor had most people, apart from the Australians when he hit a double century against them last summer. The Indians certainly hadn't. They have now.
As a fellow left-hander and former England opener, from what I've watched in the First Test I was very impressed. His calm assurance was testament to a good temperament, and it showed he has the right stuff.
Cook has a good grasp of the basics for an opening batsman. He is patient and knows where his off-stump is. And he puts away the bad ball, so he doesn't get tied down by the bowlers.
Cook had had a fraught start to his Test career, arriving in India last Sunday just three days before the start, after two days in transit from the West Indies.
Yet he looked pretty unflappable for a man who had flown halfway around the world. When he arrived in the Caribbean, he wouldn't have dreamed he would be opening in the First Test of the India tour.
In the alien conditions you experience in India, it's always going to be tricky. But he would have put that to the back of his head and batted as if he was back in Essex.
The Indians will have done their homework on individual players but they wouldn't have had any videos of Cook. They tried him out with the short ball, which he dealt with very well. He showed that with the pull shot which brought him his first runs in Test cricket in the opening session in Nagpur.
Opening the innings is the best place to bat in the order on the subcontinent. When I toured India in 2001-02, I opened, whereas for the last four or five years of my England career I batted at No 3. And I found opening a real advantage.
If you get through the new ball you can get 20 or 30 runs on the board to start with, which allows you to acclimatise before the spinners come on. Unlike the middle-order players you don't have to come in and face the turning ball cold, without getting established first.
Making your Test debut is a different matter, of course. The step up from county cricket to the Test arena means you have to face more sustained periods of pressure, and from relative obscurity you are thrust into the limelight. But it seemed that it was not a daunting challenge to Cook, because he took the opportunity so brilliantly.
For an opener facing the new ball, the pitches on the subcontinent are flatter and slower than elsewhere. You are looking to get on the front foot more often than not, and not play too many cross-bat shots. If the pitch is not as true as you would want, you have to play with a straight bat, and he has done exactly that.
When you win the toss in India you know that the pitch will deteriorate, so you bat first and just dig in. In the first innings Cook hung around while some of his colleagues got out playing more aggressive shots.
In the second dig, he had to increase the tempo as he neared his century, for the good of the team in setting a declaration, and he gave a few chances as he tried to change gears. But that does not mean he is a stodgy player. It always gets my goat when they say that so-and-so is a more aggressive batsman than someone else, because you play to whatever the situation is. But having adopted a specific role, it is hard to switch just like that.
After setting out his stall against the pacemen, Cook handled the spinners very well. He looks like he has adopted Duncan Fletcher's approach to playing the turning ball, which is to make an early forward movement.
He was positive with his footwork, which is essential when facing spinners because it allows you to get to the pitch of the ball and smother the spin. And he played with soft hands, allowing the ball just to hit the bat rather than going at it hard.
He played spin with the bat in front of the pad, to narrow the distance between where the ball pitches and where you hit it. The bat kills the pace on the ball and it drops to the floor.
The Indians do that, too. So he is definitely on the right track.
Matches of multiple debuts are rare for England in these days when selectorial continuity could almost be the name of a faddish new religion. But circumstances dictated that there were three new caps in Nagpur: Alastair Cook, Ian Blackwell and Monty Panesar.
History suggests that such games do not lead to enduring international careers for all those involved.
The last time that England introduced three debutants was at the Wanderers, Johannesburg, in November 1999. Michael Vaughan, of course, was to flourish, Chris Adams played all five matches in that series but never again and Gavin Hamilton (left), who got two ducks in nine balls and took 0 for 63 in 15 overs, never played again. The most recent occasion in which England used four new players was August 1988 against Sri Lanka: Jack Russell (58 caps), Paul Newport (3), Kim Barnett (4) and David Lawrence (5).
In November 1951 in Delhi, England last had five new caps. Donald Carr, Nigel Howard, Dick Spooner, Fred Ridgway and Don Kenyon eventually played in 26 Tests between them.
DEAN'S GAME: Nimbus, the new rights holders for the broadcast of Indian cricket (at a cost of $612m (£348m) over four years) have chosen a new presenter for their coverage. Dean Jones, the former Australia batsman, is making his debut in the role. He has developed a following out here as a commentator and will remain forever popular because of the fighting 210 he made in intense heat at Chapauk while suffering from illness 20 years ago in the second tied Test. Jones has plenty to occupy him but yearns to coach (he has a level-four badge), perhaps in the English county game.
VVS WHO? The great VVS Laxman wandered into a press conference the other evening to muse on a Test in which he had hardly taken part. Erudite he was, too, until being briefly bamboozled by a question put with all the authority the inquisitor could muster. "Well, Wasim, what's it like to be back in the team after four years?"
Much justified scornful laughter at this mistaken identity: VVS for Wasim Jaffer. Unfortunately, dear reader, it was this reporter suffering mental aberration, no doubt at all the comings and goings of players. In came the English representative and immediately proffered his hand: "My name's Paul Collingwood, by the way." Still, next day Laxman, thoroughly confused as he was, succumbed first ball. A wicket for the Diary.
THE COACH PARTY: England have 16 players here and, including three security personnel and the imminent arrival of the new fast bowling coach, Kevin Shine, a support staff member for each. This has caused some consternation, mostly among those hankering for the days when non-players numbered a manager and a baggage man. Actually there is a glaring absence: three spinners in the party and no spin coach - unless one of the security lads is a level-three doosra expert.
HOWELL'S HISTORY: Ian Howell is umpiring in this match and deserves much credit for showing up. This is his fifth Test, and in his first at Port Elizabeth in 2001 he was party to the reporting, fining and suspension of six Indian players, including Sachin Tendulkar, for various offences. It led to an international incident. Maybe the fans have forgotten - or forgiven.
THE CALM INFLUENCE: ANATOMY OF AN OPENING BATSMAN THROWN INTO THE CAULDRON
Cook showed an impressively calm temperament opening the innings, filling Trescothick's sizeable boots. Trusted his ability in a country where the game is a religion and his every stroke will be scrutinised.
He seemed fearless despite making his debut in a depleted side at the tender age of 21 on what is widely regarded as the toughest Test tour of them all - and after being summoned at very short notice from the A tour to the Caribbean.
He employs the "soft hands" that are essential to counter the turning ball in Asia, and plays spin with the bat in front of the pad instead of alongside it to avoid bat-pad catches. Eschewed cross-bat shots on a slow pitch.
Cook adhered to the tactic of coach Duncan Fletcher, the "forward press", taking an early step forward to help smother spin. Looked to get on front foot against the quicks, a necessity on pitches that lack pace.
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