The Ashes: Cook ready for the big heat

A heavy responsibility has suddenly landed on 21-year-old shoulders. They are broad enough

Alastair Cook has been an extra in an Ashes series before. The last time he opened the batting against Australia he scored 214 from 238 balls. It was the final softening-up process of the 2005 summer. At The Oval nine days later England at long last had the prize.

That innings for Essex, which startled Australia (and probably many cricket writers, whose annual dinner he had attended the night before to receive their Young Cricketer of the Year award), was of such consummate authority that it was no more or less than an audition for a future leading role.

On Thursday Cook has it. And how. Either then or a little later, depending on the toss, he will be going out at Brisbane to open the innings for England in the most anticipated Test series of all.

He was always England's designated No 3 this winter, but the sad departure of Marcus Trescothick last Tuesday with a recurrence of his stress- elated illness meant an immediate revision of that plan. Of course, Trescothick and his 5,825 Test runs will be missed, and it goes without saying that he is wished a speedy and full recovery.

But if England have to do without him, then they could hope for no more accomplished fellow than Cook. Australia, Brett Lee and Shaun Tait in particular, will recall him. Cook kept drilling them round Chelmsford, usually off the back foot, but every which way.

Already earmarked as an international player, he was called up by England last February (to replace Trescothick in India when the Somerset man was first forced to leave a tour). Cook had to be summoned from the West Indies and responded to the long flight via London by scoring 60 and 102 in his first match. He looked and sounded as though he had done nothing more than walk round the block to buy a newspaper.

"He is a cool guy who handles pressure extremely well," England's batting coach, Matthew Maynard, said. "The key to anything is your mental state, and you had a feeling straight away that he has this inner confidence about his game, which comes down to having a good gameplan. He was immediately very mature and very assured about his game. A lot of that is inbuilt, a lot comes from good coaching beforehand."

What stands out about Cook is his boundless patience. He is prepared to leave the ball and graft without becoming flustered. It is an asset in any batsman, inestimable in one so young.

"He leaves on length and he doesn't mind them coming to him," said Maynard. "He gets stuck in and doesn't mind batting long periods when the wickets are slow. But he will adapt. He keeps it all in a very level key. My old man always used to say to me that whether you score nought or a hundred you are the same bloke in the bar afterwards and that's Cook all right."

Not that Cook has had to demonstrate this yet, since his 16 innings have yielded three hundreds and no noughts, at an average of 54.

It would be wrong to think that Cook is the perfect batsman. Maynard and the England coaching staff have spent the past year trying to rectify defects, not least against spin, which may be important in the next two months given the presence of the best spin bowler of them all.

"You could see straight away that the guy had talent, belief and ability but also a few technical flaws," Maynard said. "He had a fairly narrow stance against spin so therefore he was getting a lot of momentum going into the ball. The big thing there was to introduce him to the press. He had a little trigger movement so we increased that a little bit. But during the past year we have been trying to get his bat in front of his pad when playing spin. If you do get a little edge, the ball will miss your pad."

Cook did not change overnight, which Maynard liked. "He won't just buy into an idea. He wants to challenge you because he wants to be sure it's the right thing. You give him a number of reasons why he should be doing it, but batsmen have to believe these things."

Cook, an opener by vocation, had fewer deficiencies against fast bowling. But the eagle-eyed Duncan Fletcher and Maynard have been working on preventing him jabbing at the ball aimed at a place around where a fifth stump would be, outside off stump. Hardly alone among left-handers, he tends to play it with an angled bat - exactly as he did yesterday in being dismissed by Jason Gillespie.

Perhaps the only England player to have sung in St Paul's Cathedral (Ian Bell merely looks as though he may have done), Cook is unfailingly polite but clearly robust. It is a bold call, since the Aussies are such experts, but it is probable that if they try to get under his skin they may meet a covering of cast iron.

Maynard is anxious not to burden Cook with the weight of expectation in this series, but he sees a resemblance to another left-handed England opener who succeeded in Australia, Chris Broad: particularly the way both stand tall and play off their hips.

There is an oddity about Cook's (predominantly) back- foot method. He goes on to his toes at the moment a seamer delivers the ball. To keep balance the movement has to be precise. So far it always has been.

Opening the batting for England against Australia at the age of 21. For the next two months he is up on his toes reaching for the sky.

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