England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval July 19, 2012

England - beauty in the eye of the beholder

England have endured some dark days at The Oval but Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott shared a partnership that demonstrates how far they have progressed

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. But, on the ground where England first lost to Australia, on the ground where England were booed by their own supporters having lost to New Zealand and slipped to the foot of the Test rankings, where Michael Holding exposed their batsmen against pace and Muttiah Muralitharan exposed them against spin, the batting of Jonathan Trott and, in particular, Alastair Cook, was, to English eyes, nothing less than beautiful.

England supporters have known suffering. They have seen their teams humiliated. They have been to the bottom of the rankings. But, after years of talented individuals and awful results, England at last have a team that have delivered sustained success. And they have not done it through pleasing cameos. They have done it through hard work, discipline and denial. And, if any demonstration of their methods was required, it was provided on day one at the Oval.

This was the big stage. This was the important moment. And yet, brought together in the first over of the day against an attack containing record-breaking bowlers, Cook and Trott resisted everything that was thrown at them and, without too much fuss or flourish, laid the foundations of what could prove a match-defining total in a stand of 170 in 57 overs. There is a long way to go in this game and anything less than 400 in the first innings will surely prove inadequate but, having lost just three wickets on the first day and with plenty of batting to come, England will be much the happier of the teams.

Cook may lack the gorgeous timing of Gower or the awesome power of Botham, but his records will put them all in the shade. He has now, aged 27, scored 20 Test centuries. Only Hammond, Cowdrey, Boycott (all of whom scored 22 Test centuries) and Strauss (with 21) have scored more centuries for England. All of them had played more Tests than Cook and Strauss, by comparison, was 27 when he made his Test debut. Cook will, given some fortune with health and fitness, break every England Test batting record in existence.

Most pertinently, Cook now has the same amount of Test centuries as his mentor as England and Essex opener, Graham Gooch, who is now with the team as batting coach. "He was a great player and to have the same number of hundreds as him is a very special moment," Cook said.

There is something of the cockroach about Cook. He is not a pretty batsman and he is not armed with obvious weapons or blessed with great speed. But, like a cockroach, he has adapted to survive. He has flourished in the most hostile environments and seems able to withstand pace, spin, flood and famine. There are times, when he is out of form, when it seems any delivery probing around off stump should be enough to account for him. But, on days like this, it seems he could survive nuclear war. It will be no surprise to wake up the day after the apocalypse and find Cook taking guard and nudging a single off his hips.

"When Trott, not for the first time this year, squandered his hard work with a loose shot outside off stump, it was as surprising as discovering that your postman actually used to be Elvis."

Perhaps it is unfair to talk so disparagingly of him. He produced some delightful strokes here - a couple of cuts and a forward prod that sped back past the bowler spring to mind - but he would not care. He is all about substance. Others can worry about style.

They can worry about their preparation, too. Cook certainly feels happy to prepare in his own unique way and spent the days before this series working back on his in-laws' Bedfordshire farm. If success breeds imitators, future England batsman may spend less time in the nets and more time chasing sheep. "I started 10am in the morning the day after the Australia ODI series and I didn't stop until Monday morning the day we met up here," Cook said. "It seemed to work alright. We had a couple of sessions with Goochie and his dog stick but the rest of the time I was moving sheep."

This was, on the surface, a deflating day for South Africa. Certainly any hubristic talk that England would be blown away by pace - Steyn is reported to have said he wanted to "scare the s***" out of England - was rendered foolish. So was the talk of a new, refined Morne Morkel as a fast bowling machine. If he resembled any sort of machine, it was the type built in the 19th century that occasionally takes off a child's arm. Jacques Kallis, despite being given the second new ball for the first time in a decade, looked pedestrian and Imran Tahir ran around in the field like a woman of a certain age rushing back to the restaurant when she feared she had left her pearls. He bowled a little like that, too.

But it would not be true to conclude that South Africa bowled poorly. On a painfully slow wicket - the days when the Oval offered pace and bounce to bowlers are long gone; the pitch is now much more like the cabbage patch it used to be before they started to play cricket here - they were forced to adopt an attritional approach. And taking on Cook and Trott in a game of attrition is like taking on a dolphin at swimming. As Cook put it, "The ball nibbled around in the first session but it did it very slowly so we could grind our way through it."

It is an oddity of cricket that something as seemingly passive as a leave can provoke such rapt attention. But here Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn and Morkel all maintained a nagging off-stump line that could, on another day, another pitch and against another opponent, have drawn a series of edges. Yet Cook and Trott left with remarkable judgement and refused to be drawn into the prods that could have brought their downfall. As is so often the case with the pair of them, it was the shots they did not play as much as those they did that brought them success.

They represent infuriating opponents. Trott invariably clips, drives and nudges through the leg side when the bowler pitches on the off stump. Cook simply leaves anything that requires him to reach for the ball, forces the bowler into bowling straighter or shorter and then feasts. When Trott, not for the first time this year, squandered his hard work with a loose shot outside off stump, it was as surprising as discovering that your postman actually used to be Elvis.

This was a day of high-quality, absorbing cricket from both sides. And, while England enjoyed the best of it, their joy will be tempered in the knowledge that they will face similar problems dislodging the South African batsmen. But, while there seems little reason to believe that England's seamers will find any more assistance in this surface, it is possible that Graeme Swann will coax more out of it than Tahir managed.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo