St Kitts XI59 & 76-7 England 379-6 dec: Alastair Cook finally scores another ton as he aims to silence his critics

 

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Alastair Cook scored his first century for England in almost two years and then promptly retired. From his innings, that is, not his career. It was tempting to suppose that he departed out of sheer relief, though apparently it was to give his colleagues a go in the gentlest of friendly matches before the first Test begins on Monday.

England played an utterly meaningless contest against St Kitts & Nevis Invitational XI. After bowling out their opponents for 59 in the first innings, they then ran through them in their second. Maybe it will come to be seen as a starting point of something wonderful. Maybe not.

Needing to add only five to his overnight score, Cook edged the first ball of the day through third man for four, a shot which summed up a studious innings, solid, profitable without being wholly convincing. Of course, by scoring a welcome century (damned if he did, damned if he didn’t), Cook merely pointed up the fact that he had gone 31 Test innings without doing so.

He spent most of last summer under the harshest scrutiny as England’s Test captain and calls for his dismissal or resignation were issued more regularly than General Election opinion polls. The selectors held their nerve and Cook rightly survived. Replacing him then with a successor appointed out of panic would have led to more chaos, as the recent World Cup demonstrated.

They were rewarded with a comeback victory over India and some decent runs for Cook. But he did not add to his record 25 hundreds and the credit in the bank that they give him cannot be extended for ever. Perhaps he is a victim of his own previous success. His first-class average last season was above 50 and in three Championship matches for Essex it was closer to 80.

But those figures belie a small but important truth, which is that Cook is not the authoritative figure he was. Frailty outside the off stump has reappeared, bowlers frequently deny him his favoured scoring areas and he needs a hundred quickly to reassert himself.

Cook clearly retains the respect of the dressing room but is said to be tiring of his press coverage. Considering what he was put through last summer, he might have come late to this conclusion. Runs for Cook and a victory in Antigua next week will make everybody feel better about things.

Whatever happens, and no matter the present state of West Indies disarray, it will be a little different in tempo and atmosphere. After Cook left and Gary Ballance was held close in, getting into a tangle again, there were relaxed, straightforward fifties for Ian Bell and Joe Root.

Bell, appointed as official vice-captain, wore on his helmet the new attachment devised after the accident which led to Phillip Hughes’ death last year. He played a few trademark cover drives and both produced some pleasant late cuts.

Ben Stokes came in later and drilled a few boundaries, including 19 from an over. After England’s declaration at 379 for 6, they overwhelmed their hapless opponents with both pace and spin. It was embarrassing.

The teams will resume today in another two-day match. England have negotiated an unusual deal. Not only will they bowl first but they will bowl for 90 overs, whatever happens. This means that they could bowl out their opponents three times (possible, based on the 26.3 overs St Kitts lasted first time round) and remain in the field.

It will play havoc with scorers and scoreboards but also emphasises the need for England’s bowlers to bowl. This has become essentially a glorified middle practice and the tourists dare not waste it.

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