Ready, steady, Cook! Long winter in fires of Australia leaves a burning ambition for this summer

One player untouched by World Cup failure thanks choirboy days for toughening him up

There is no need to cook the books. The figures speak for themselves. No younger player has reached 1,000 Test runs for England, none has made four centuries before the age of 22, only three have been younger when scoring their maiden hundred, and since two of them were Len Hutton and Denis Compton, true greats, it is possible to predict where this career may be heading.

"It was some year, I suppose," said Alastair Cook, his measured words reflecting his batting. "But the best thing I ever heard was that you become a better batsman when you're 30. That drives you, the fact that you're doing well but you know you can get better if you do the right things and stay focused on one thing and one thing only, scoring runs."

Cook looked an authentic international batsman from the moment he went out in the First Test at Nagpur, central India, in early March last year. He had been in the country for only three days, having been summoned mid-match from an England A Test in Antigua, a 48-hour, three-flight journey of 8,712 miles. He scored 60 in the first innings, 104 not out in the second.

What marked his performances then is precisely what has marked them since and, all being well, will mark them once more in this international season which begins with the First Test against West Indies at Lord's on Thursday: a refusal to be flustered, a willingness to be patient, a determination not to do anything beyond his limitations. He is quietly, unspectacularly proficient, slightly saturnine in looks and batsmanship, unafraid to play scratchy innings, hugely self-disciplined.

If Cook was tormented by his experiences in Australia in the winter, when a maiden Ashes century in Perth was offset by nine innings in which his top score was 43, he shows scant indication. On his return he worked on changing his technique to eliminate the quaint double backlift but then decided against it.

He has started the summer with three hundreds in four matches and is irritated that he has twice reached 30 and got out. "Thirty is pointless in one way," he said after practice at Chelmsford last week, as if to emphasise that he deals only in runs and more runs.

The roots for Cook's approach and early success as an international cricketer lie in the way young Alastair spent much of his boyhood. Between the ages of eight and 13, he attended St Paul's Cathedral School as a chorister. At first glance the link between a choirboy and an international opening batsman, the one obviously fresh-faced, the other perforce hard-nosed, may be tenuous. Not so.

Cook went to St Paul's as a boarder when his treble voice was spotted at his parents' choir practice. They lived then as now in the Essex village of Wickham Bishops. "I was asked if I wanted to try for St Paul's Cathedral, and I thought it was a day off school so I could have a laugh. I got in and was given the chance to decide. I said I'd go, I don't know why.

"It hit me when I first turned up and my parents went home. You think, 'Oh shit, what have I got myself into?'. They were probably the hardest five years you could ever expect an eight- to 13-year-old to go through. It teaches you to be independent. It was bloody hard work, 24 hours a week singing, eight to nine in the morning at choir practice, then school, then four to six for a service and more practice. It wasn't Mickey Mouse, it was proper stuff, and we were the best choir in the world. The concentration was the best thing about it, you couldn't make a mistake. There were times when I wished I wasn't doing it, but my batting has probably got a lot of what went into the choir. My mum and dad think so."

In its way, Cook's path has been a gilded one. From the choir at St Paul's ("I was a steady pro, I think, but others did the solos") he went to Bedford School, a naïve 13-year-old who heard Radio One and was not sure what was going on. He was immediately outstanding at cricket.

When he was 14, Keith Fletcher, the wily Essex former captain and coach, said Cook was the best schoolboy he had ever seen. At 15, Cook was first selected for the Essex second team, and seven matches and three years later, promise unfulfilled, he scored two hundreds in a fixture against Surrey. The light had come on.

"That was the day when I thought I could be a cricketer," he said. It was the belief I could do it." Injury soon allowed him his debut for Essex in the County Championship. He played in the last three matches of the 2003 season and scored a fifty in each of them. In 2004 he made his maiden first-class hundred, and the choirboy knew he could reach the top notes.

"It's all about monkeys off backs," said Cook. "Everyone talks about belief but I've never met anybody who had the belief before they had done it."

His first spectacular entry into the national consciousness was his 214 from 234 balls in a two-day match against Australia in 2005, five days before the match that would decide the Ashes. He flayed the tourists all round Chelmsford. They have wreaked vengeance, of course. The worry is, as it is so for many England players, that Cook might have been damaged by his winter experiences, when England became only the second team to lose an Ashes series 5-0.

"We know what we did wrong, we can't change it, but whenever anybody mentions it, it hurts," he said. He toes the party line adroitly: "This is a great time. What Duncan Fletcher did for English cricket was fantastic and he spotted things about my batting nobody else did. But this is a time to move on, and Peter Moores is a great appointment."

Were he not such an accomplished performer, there would be a place for him in the England and Wales Cricket Board's corporate affairs department. By his own admission, he is too young and too wary to express controversial opinions, but he did not entirely conceal them.

"A few England players have only been back from the West Indies for two weeks and we're already playing a Test," he said. "Australia are having six months off, and somewhere down the line England need the same. I'm really ready to go but we need to stop playing cricket all year every year. We all love playing for England. It was my dream, and not many people can say they do the job they dreamed of. But the amount of cricket has to be sensible. Bowlers go through hell to play a Test."

They were bold but apposite words. Listening to them it was feasible to suppose that one day the speaker might be England's captain. But that will be another story. "Fast-forward 10 years and if I'm sitting here and have played pretty near every England match I'd be a happy man."

A Coach Journey: Style guide to men at the helm

1986-92: Mickey Stewart

Coincided with the closing days of the Botham-Gower era. Beginning with Ashes victory, there were never such highs again. But he was the first team manager and the first to introduce new methods of training and preparation.

1992-96: Ray Illingworth

Right man at wrong time. Was handed power unthinkable before or since - chairman of selectors, manager and coach - and simply failed to make it work. Lacked empathy with captain Mike Atherton and at 60 came too late to the job.

1996-99: David Lloyd

David Lloyd: Briefly a breath of fresh air. But the role did not suit because of the rarefied demands. He cared but perhaps too much and let his emotions overcome him occasionally. Realised the need for proper support staff.

1999-2007: Duncan Fletcher

Duncan Fletcher: Most durable and successful of England coaches. Lost only one home Test series. But he took his eye off the one-day ball and came virtually to ignore the counties, creating a chasm. Time will be kind.

ENGLAND LIKELY 13 AND SERIES SCHEDULE

Possible Test Squad:

A J Strauss (Middlesex, capt)

A N Cook (Essex)

I R Bell (Warwickshire)

K P Pietersen (Hampshire)

P D Collingwood (Durham)

A Flintoff (Lancashire)

P A Nixon (Leicestershire, wkt)

M J Hoggard (Yorkshire)

S J Harmison (Durham)

M S Panesar (Northamptonshire)

O A Shah (Middlesex)

J M Anderson (Lancashire)

E C Joyce (Middlesex)

Coach: P Moores

SUMMER SCHEDULE

West Indies

17-21 May: First Test (Lord's). 25-29 May: Second Test (Headingley). 7-11 June: Third Test (Old Trafford). 15-19 June: Fourth Test (Riverside, Chester-le-Street). 28 June: Twenty20 International (The Oval). 29 June: Twenty20 International (The Oval). 1 July: First One-Day International (Lord's). 4 July: Second One-Day International (Edgbaston). 7 July: Third One-Day International (Trent Bridge).

India

19-24 July: First Test (Lord's). 27-31 July: Second Test (Trent Bridge). 9-13 Aug: Third Test (The Oval). 21 Aug: First ODI (The Rose Bowl, D/N). 24 Aug: Second ODI (Bristol, D/N). 27 Aug: Third ODI (Edgbaston). 30 Aug: Fourth ODI (Old Trafford). 2 Sept: Fifth ODI (Headingley). 5 Sept: Sixth ODI (The Oval). 8 Sept: Seventh ODI (Lord's).

First Test squad announced at 9.30am today

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