The clamour grows throughout the land: pick Cook now

He was always going to be a part of the future, but now he is ahead of schedule

Alastair Cook was English cricket's coming man. His 104 not out on his Test debut in Nagpur in March was confirmation in spades, but random strands of evidence coming together last week suggest that the 21-year-old Essex left-hander may already have arrived - despite an embarrassing early dismissal at Lord's on Friday.

In Chelmsford last Wednesday he was interviewed by three national newspapers - including us, of course - one local paper, Radio Five Live, Sky Sports and Esquire magazine. Writing in the Wisden Cricketer, Nasser Hussain called for Cook's immediate inclusion in the England team. "Pick him now," he said, so that Cook will be ready for next winter's Ashes tour.

Essex are resigned to Cook being given a central contract. "We were pretty certain this was going to happen, but it might be coming a year earlier than we expected," says John Childs, who coaches the county's young players. Keith Fletcher, who has studied Cook's development over five years, says he knew he would play for England when he was only 17. In his experience, the only England player who has shown such assurance so early was another left-hander - the young Graham Thorpe. "How the selectors get him in is another matter," says Fletcher.

Cook himself is wary of this flattering flurry of attention. "If you believe what they write in the papers, you're inclined to take your eye off the ball. At the moment, the press is good, and I might begin to think that I'm a better player than I am. You've got to be very careful. Keep your feet on the ground, and try to improve," he says.

But his modest exterior masks a fierce self-belief. Speaking to an Indian reporter after his remarkable debut, he said: "I felt my life had suddenly changed. When I came to the camp I knew in my heart that I would go to Australia [this winter], but I didn't tell anyone." Hearing of this, Childs remarks: "That sounds like him."

Cook had been well coached, by Derek Randall at Bedford School and then by a panoply of Essex grandees, starting with Childs and Fletcher. "I've taken little bits off everyone," Cook says. His mentors at Essex assumed that when he left Bedford School, where he had studied music (piano and sax) and cricket (no less than 19 schoolboy hundreds), he would go to university - Loughborough and Durham would have been glad to have him. Grant Flower was given a contract on the assumption that Cook would not be playing a full season for three years.

After all, Cook's family - father a high street banker, mother a teacher - is the sort that would recommend that he should get an education before playing professional cricket. But Cook chose not to wait. As a 19-year-old, he played in 12 Championship matches, scored his maiden first-class century, and averaged just under 30. He captained and top-scored for England Under-19s.

Last summer the talent simply exploded: 1,466 runs at 53.25, and that did not include a rambunctious 214 against the Australian tourists in a non-first-class, two-day game last August. Stuart MacGill declared that Cook had the best technique of any young player in county cricket. Andy Flower, playing alongside him at Essex, asserted that Cook was the best player off his legs he had ever seen. Bar none.

Cook is finally fully grown. As an adolescent he was a fast- growing beanpole. Now he has stopped at 6ft 2in, and filled out after endless hours in the gym. At the crease, he has a classical upright, balanced stance - "He's a pretty uncomplicated batsman," says the MCC's John Stephenson, who played with Cook at Essex. Childs strains to identify weakness: a left-hander's vulnerability on or just outside off stump, and a frailty against spin, which he went to Bombay to correct - and which did not appear to hinder him on his Test debut.

But Cook thinks of himself as an unfinished article. "You watch the way I play now and the way I played when I was 15 and 16, it's probably quite similar. Same style. A lot of it is instinct. You've got that basic game, and I'm lucky in that I've kept improving. I think I'm a lot better player than I was then. Hopefully, I'll be saying the same thing in three years' time."

Fletcher wants to discover how good young players listen, and how good they are under pressure. Cook passes summa cum laude. He describes his feeling as he approached his Test hundred, two months after his 21st birthday. "I imagined that I'd be very nervous. To be honest with you - and I know people probably won't believe it - I was nervous, obviously, but I wasn't a total wreck. Because you're out there, you're in control. Cricket is all I've done, and I've always wanted to do it. It kind of comes naturally to you when you feel the pressure situation and you've had little bits of experience to draw on."

All those who have watched Cook's development are of one mind. Fletcher, Stephenson, Hussain, Childs all say England should play him now. "Other countries put young players in when they've got someone that good," says Stephenson.

As for Cook, he would love it: "It's a happy dressing room, and an easy one to fit into," he says. "All for one, and one for all." It's only a matter of time before he is one of the all.

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