Alastair Cook is confident he and his England team are as ready as they will ever be for one of the biggest tests of their professional lives.
Cook’s task is to ensure that not just he but the XI chosen for today’s first of ten Tests against Australia over the next six months demonstrate they can collectively handle the Ashes hype.
He warns they do not merely need to do justice to their talents, but excel themselves if they are to vindicate the favourites’ tag for the first instalment, the Investec series on home soil.
It is essential too that Cook leads from the front with runs at the top of the order, in company with rookie Test opener Joe Root – with the power to add from Kevin Pietersen et al.
He will draw on his own achievements to date, including in Ashes successes home and away in 2009 and 2010/11, for self-belief – and insists, too, specifically in Root and Pietersen’s cases, he has every reason to anticipate major contributions.
Cook’s own CV screamed future England captain until the day he replaced the retiring Andrew Strauss at the end of last summer – and much he has done since, notably in a historic series victory in India, suggests he is the right man to try to continue his predecessor’s winning Ashes run.
“I think I’m ready,” he said at his captain’s press conference yesterday. “I have played quite a lot of cricket now, so I feel pretty experienced – and as a captain as well, I think I have grown into it. I have got a huge amount of learning still to do, because I think the only time you do learn is out there in those situations.”
Cook resumes his most public of learning curves with stakes raised not merely by an unprecedented schedule of back-to-back Ashes series, but by national sporting expectations after the Lions’ rugby victory in Australia and Andy Murray’s first home win for 77 years at Wimbledon.
He will not allow any of that to deflect him from simply providing the answers to problems he knows Australia will set over the next seven weeks. Cook’s recipe for success is to ensure he does not let the occasion lead him away from tried-and- trusted skills which have brought him this far.
“I think they will be pretty much the same kind of questions,” he said. “Your decisions will be scrutinised a little more because there is more interest in it. That is the big difference.”
And he is confident 22-year-old Root, fast-tracked up to open the innings against Australia in just his seventh Test in place of the dropped Nick Compton, will cope with the challenge. “It’s quite similar to what happened to me really, when I moved up from number three – although I had opened a couple of times in India,” he added. “He has handled himself in every situation fantastically well since he made his England debut.” Pietersen is different, of course, but Cook is equally convinced the timing is right for the batsman who returned after three months out injured with an unbeaten first-class hundred at his first attempt.
He said: “Obviously that 170 he scored for Surrey shows that, although he’s been away from the game for a long period of time, he’s ready to play.”
England must today make one last selection call on which of Steven Finn, Tim Bresnan and possibly Graham Onions will be their third seamer. Whoever makes the cut will join a team primed to peak with the world watching.
Memorable first Ashes days
The opening day of an Ashes series rarely fails to deliver incident, from Steve Harmison’s first-ball wide to Peter Siddle’s hat-trick. Here, we take a look at five recent memorable starts to cricket’s oldest rivalry.
The Gabba, Brisbane
(25 November, 2010)
There was little sign of England’s dominant series on the opening day in Brisbane as skipper Andrew Strauss fell to the third ball of the day before a Peter Siddle hat-trick meant the tourists were bowled out for 260. Things quickly changed, however, as England romped the series with three innings victories to end a 24-year wait for success Down Under.
The Gabba, Brisbane
(23 November, 2006)
From the moment Steve Harmison’s opening delivery of the series arrowed wide to Andrew Flintoff at second slip England were on the back foot. Ricky Ponting hit a century on the opening day, en route to 196, and set Australia on the pathway to a 5-0 whitewash.
(21 July, 2005)
England proved they would not be intimidated by the all-conquering Australians on arguably the most memorable of opening days. A venomous Harmison opening spell cut through the Aussies, quite literally bloodying Ponting, as they were bowled out for 190. The stage for a remarkable series was then set when Glenn McGrath’s five-for led the Australia riposte, reducing England to 92 for seven by the close.
The Gabba, Brisbane
(7 November, 2002)
Nasser Hussain’s decision to put Australia into bat was cruelly punished on a day the former England skipper has failed to live down since. Matthew Hayden’s unbeaten 186 helped the hosts to 364 for two and England’s woes were compounded further by a horror knee injury to Simon Jones when he dived to save a ball in the outfield.
(5 June, 1997)
England defied expectation to blow away Australia in Birmingham a little over 16 years ago, bowling out the tourists for 118 before taking an 82-run lead, for the loss of three wickets, by stumps. Andy Caddick’s five for 50 skittled the tourists with only Shane Warne’s 47 inching them into three figures. Hussain then took command, racing to 80 by the close, on his way to 207.