Two out of three looks good as debutants reach for stars

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The Independent Online

Test cricket is not for cissies. Never was, never will be. It is the hardest, most unforgiving form of the game and it finds you out. The other trouble, just as bad, is that nothing can really prepare a man for it.

Three players representing England for the first time this week at this ground will already recognise a little more about themselves. Not all of them will like everything they see staring back from the mirror, a fact entirely unconnected to the decision taken by so many modern players to eschew shaving during Tests.

History shows that of any trio sent out together for the first time (which rarely happens in these days of consistent selection), it is highly unlikely that more than one will have an enduring career. Two would be a bonus and three a journey to the stars. Early in the piece though it is, with plenty of cricket left in the first Test after a captivating third day, England might consider that they have their bonus but not their fantastical ride.

On the first day, Alastair Cook, all of 21 and bristling with upright youthful purpose, made 60. Yesterday, after England had waited nearly four hours for a wicket, he took a smart, alert catch at first slip which seemed to confirm where he belonged.

Then came Monty Panesar, a left-arm spinner from Luton whose appearance in this match was beyond prediction six months ago when the winter touring squads were announced. A rigorous search of senior and Academy squads and the reserves therein would not have elicited his name.

Circumstances, selectorial desperation and injuries then provided an improbable opportunity. The measure of his contribution thus far was best summed up by the fast bowler Matthew Hoggard, who took the first four wickets to fall.

"To get Sachin Tendulkar as your first Test victim is something very special and he has done everything we have asked of him," he said. "He bowled as if he had been bowling in Test cricket for the last 10 years."

The real point of Hoggard's comments was that Panesar looked as though he could bowl for the next 10 years, and the words on the lips of the watching Ashley Giles, the worthy and previously incumbent left-arm spinner, as he looked to the injured part of his body, might not have been: "Hip, hip, hooray."

Monty himself - it seems already he will be among that uncommon breed known by their first name - had celebrated with rare gusto on having Tendulkar leg before, evading at first the grateful thanks of his colleagues. "To make your Test debut and to get out Sachin, who has been my role model, I was so excited I could hardly believe it had happened," he said.

Panesar, allegedly troubled in distinguishing the different ends of the bat, had already shown his mettle in a crucial 10th-wicket stand in England's innings.

And then there was Ian Blackwell, the sturdy lad from Somerset. He played a dreadful shot to get out, made two early and sadly glaring fielding errors and was permitted to bowl only seven overs of left-arm spin that were as innocuous as Panesar's 41.4 overs were probing.

Last week, Blackwell had said: "It won't bother me at all. I'd love to play and go for 0 for 200. These guys are only human and I'd like to mix it with the best." Poor Blackwell - nobody was about to give him the opportunity to go for 0 for 200. He has only just arrived but the way back is already looking as arduous and unlikely as a journey to the stars.