England v South Africa, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 1st day July 19, 2012

Cook hundred gives England control

England 267 for 3 (Cook 114*, Bell 10*) v South Africa
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Much has been made of the fact this is only a three-Test series, a contest that will determine the No. 1 team in the world - and one thing it means is that the early advantage becomes even more crucial. Through Alastair Cook's 20th Test hundred, a chanceless innings, it was England who ended the opening day in control on a healthy 267 for 3, as they aim to consolidate their top ranking.

Cook's hundred, which came from 222 balls, made him the third England batsman this year to reach the 20 Test century mark following Kevin Pietersen at Colombo and Andrew Strauss at Lord's. It is a close race between the trio to become England's leading century-maker, overtaking the 22 scored by Geoff Boycott, Wally Hammond and Colin Cowdrey, but there is little doubt that Cook, who is still only 27, should finish his career at the top of that list.

This innings ended an 11-month gap between Test hundreds for Cook, whose previous was the mammoth 294 against India at Edgbaston. He has since twice fallen for 94 - the hundreds have instead come in one-day cricket and he has often looked in wonderful touch - so it was timely to get the century count ticking over again. He played some delightful drives, with one back-foot punch through mid-off against Dale Steyn standing out, and also collected a six when he hooked Steyn during the first session.

Cook and Jonathan Trott added 170 for the second wicket as England confidently overcame the loss of Strauss to the fourth ball of the series. The pair, who have previously added stands of 392, 251 and 173, encapsulate the methodical, pragmatic and calculated cricket that has taken England to the top of the rankings. They are not the most flamboyant No. 1 team in history - South Africa, if they are to overtake them, wouldn't be either - but they have found a formula that, especially at home, is becoming mighty difficult to unpick.

That gameplan revolves around grinding opposition down; when bowling first that comes in terms of drying up runs and when batting first it means digging in for the long haul with the top three laying foundations for a more expansive middle order. It was far from revolutionary - in fact it is 'old fashioned' Test cricket - but it has proved a revelation in recent years.

What was impressive about England here was the way they responded to the early loss of Strauss. It was the third time the captain has fallen in the first over a Test and this was the team's most confident reply. The last time he faced South Africa, at Johannesburg, he was out first ball and it precipitated a poor England performance. This early departure brought back memories of Brisbane 2010, when he carved the third ball to Michael Hussey at gully and England fumbled to a total of 260 although ultimately, and famously, saved the game.

Significant credit must go to Graeme Smith and some shrewd captaincy. Even before this innings Morne Morkel had an impressive record against Strauss, who he had removed six times in Test cricket - often from around the wicket - and he started with that line of attack straight away. Morkel's second delivery was miles down the leg side but the radar was soon adjusted although Steve Davis, the umpire, did not give the decision and it required a review from Smith. It proved his second smart decision in less than an over, with the ball shown to be hitting middle and leg.

Trott, however, calmly drove his first delivery through mid-on while Cook was given too many deliveries he could leave, especially by Morkel from round the wicket. Steyn was held back from the new ball as Vernon Philander partnered Morkel and there was swing on offer, which caused the batsmen a few nervous moments without creating a chance.

Having been billed as a battle of the bowling attacks, South Africa's five-pronged unit were on the whole disappointing. The visitors had been bullish that their limited preparation would not be a factor heading into the match but Steyn, who wasn't handed the new ball, Morkel and Jacques Kallis looked short of a decent workout. There was also a suggestion that Steyn may not be fully fit as he spent time off the field having his ankle strapped.

Imran Tahir, the legspinner, did not pose a huge threat and the batsmen could sit on him while waiting for the bad ball. Both Cook and Trott were quick to latch onto anything short, with midwicket being especially profitable for Cook. It was Morkel who provided the breakthrough when he managed to pitch the ball a touch fuller and found Trott's outside edge from a rare loose drive after South Africa had gone wicketless during the afternoon session.

The day's play then developed an extra edge as Pietersen, in a week where he has never been far from the headlines, entered the fray. Morkel tried for a yorker first ball and gifted Pietersen a full toss to open his account but he played carefully to reach 3 off 20 deliveries before stepping across his stumps and flicking Philander over mid-on.

A crunching pull off Steyn was the most dismissive shot of the day, closely followed by a straight drive off Kallis, and an attempted scoop against JP Duminy suggested he felt ready to expand. But Kallis had his revenge when Pietersen gloved a bouncer to AB de Villiers two balls before the 80-over mark. It was England's poorest piece of cricket in the day, as it gave South Africa hope of making late inroads, but Cook and Ian Bell negotiated the new ball to complete a very satisfactory start for the hosts.

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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