Cook stars but England stutter
Warwickshire 31 for 1 (Frost 3*, Trott 18*) trail England XI 290 for 8 declared (Cook 124, Tahir 3-54) by 259 runs
After a month on the sidelines during the World Twenty20, Alastair Cook slipped back into the England set-up at Edgbaston, and announced his readiness for next week's first Test with a dour and diligent 124. But the rest of England's anticipated Ashes line-up produced a performance as lop-sided as the chosen field of play, as they failed to capitalise on a 48-yard leg-side boundary, and skidded unceremoniously from 162 for 1 to 290 for 8 declared.
By the close of the first day, James Anderson had extracted Ian Westwood for 2 to leave a second-string Warwickshire on 31 for 1 after 10 overs, but the declared intention of England's captain, Andrew Strauss, to "hit the ground running" had developed something of a stumble after a confident first few strides.
Aside from Cook, the only batsman who really got going was Ravi Bopara, who top-edged a pull to midwicket for 43 to end a second-wicket stand of 101. Thereafter England lost their next six wickets for 93, including the miscreant of the moment, Andrew Flintoff, who managed a frantic 19 from 17 balls before poking limply to second slip.
Nevertheless, as far as Cook was concerned, the mere exercise of gathering the team together in the week building up to Cardiff was the most important aspect of a match he regarded as a friendly. "For the lads who've been playing a lot of Twenty20 cricket, it's just nice to get the rhythm back for the four-day stuff," he said. "You don't feel guilty for leaving a ball, or for blocking an over or two. It's nice just to relax and get into that change of mindset."
Even Cook himself had to do that. For a long time, his lack of muscle had been a source of much ribbing in the England dressing-room, with his only international six prior to this season coming from a top-edged pull in Wellington two winters ago. Last week for Essex, however, he cracked a 57-ball hundred against Surrey in the Twenty20 Cup, and the confidence that instilled in his cricket was fully on display today.
"Runs are runs, but [that innings] proved to a few people, and to myself, that I can hit a few sixes," he said. "I really enjoyed it, because although we were desperate to win, you have to be free to play like that." Today, he wasn't exactly cracking along at two runs a ball, but there was a surety to his stroke play that had been missing even during his last innings for England, his career-best 160 against West Indies at Chester-le-Street in May.
"That day we beat the West Indies, everyone else was staying together and I was leaving that night to play for Essex," Cook recalled. "It was a bit strange, and I didn't like it to be honest. When you score 160 you want to carry on playing for England, but it seems a long time ago that I was [involved]."
Warwickshire's attack comprised an off-colour new-ball pairing of Chris Woakes and Boyd Rankin, and was backed up by the varying talents of Naqaash Tahir, who has yet to play a Championship fixture this season, and the former Rochdale striker Keith Barker, who switched to cricket last season having never scored a league goal, and finally gave his illustrious godfather, Clive Lloyd, something to be proud of when he bowled Paul Collingwood for his maiden first-class wicket.
Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson this was not. Nor indeed was it the pumped-up combo of Steve Harmison and Graham Onions that the Aussies had to face 40 miles down the road at Worcester. And yet, when England's wickets started to tumble, it might as well have been. After Andrew Strauss's pre-lunch dismissal, caught on the drive for 31 having been dropped on 20 at third slip, Bopara sparked a mini-collapse when he under-estimated the leaping bounce that Rankin can get from the wicket, and spooned a simple catch to the 17-year-old Ateeq Javid, standing roughly where the Test pitch will be in a month's time.
Four overs later, and Kevin Pietersen had been and gone as well. His was a brief and fitful innings, eight balls long and one run deep, and it ended with a flat-footed poke to first slip. Cook was the next to go, well caught by Tim Ambrose, standing up to the medium pace of Jonathan Trott after picking off 21 fours from 190 balls, and when Collingwood was deceived on the back foot by one that kept a fraction low, England were 229 for 5, and starting to flounder.
Flintoff emerged to the loudest cheer of the day from a 2000-strong crowd, and got off the mark with an unintentional steer for four through third man. He belted three more fours in an innings brimful with intent, and was also dropped at midwicket as he climbed into a ferocious heave through the leg-side. Before he had added to his 19 runs, however, he fell to an angled steer to give Tahir a deserved third wicket in the innings.
Flintoff was not called upon to bowl in the ten overs before the close, as Strauss decided to leave Anderson and Stuart Broad to work off their red-ball rust in tandem. Long after the close, however, he was still out in the middle with Ottis Gibson, the bowling coach, working on his run-up and generally being seen to be putting in the hard yards.
"He made a mistake, he said he's sorry, we have to move on," said Cook, after Flintoff was called upon to make a public apology to the team for his bus-missing gaffe in Ypres. "It was nice that he was honest, we could see the regret in his face for what he's caused." England as a collective, however, didn't quite get their timekeeping up to scratch today.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo