England v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Old Trafford, 2nd day July 28, 2006

Batting battle heats up as youngsters shine

Alastair Cook continued is effortless start to Test cricket © Getty Images
He's young, he's confident, he has three Test centuries in seven matches and the best bit is he's English. Alastair Cook has been England's No. 3 since March 1 but already it is starting to feel like a lifetime. Barely six months in an England shirt and it is almost time to starting calling the long-lost best friend from school to dig a story, given the reams written about him. Given that he is only 21 that speaks volumes for the impact he has made.

Most 21-year-olds are just waking up to the realities of the real world and life after university, where the occasional lecture has been squeezed in around the timetabled sessions at the bar. Cook, however, is already so well-advanced in life's lessons that his position in an England side provides a reassuring presence in the top order. His chanceless 127 was more than Pakistan managed between eleven batsmen: "It was a good wicket with a bit of pace in, which made scoring quite easy," he said in a now familiar press conference routine. "The second new ball was harder and it did a little bit more and I think England had a great day."

Yet, for all his early success the words dour, defensive and even dull are still banded around. Admittedly, you can't describe a Cook innings with the same relish as Kevin Pietersen or Andrew Flintoff, but what England needed to do after their Ashes success and subsequent slump in Pakistan was to learn how to knuckle down again.

Cook came in and batted his own way and hasn't stopped since. "The first couple of innings of took a bit of getting used to when you saw the openers walk out," he said about batting at No. 3 instead of opening as he does for Essex, "but [it] gives me a place to play for England and I'll bat anywhere." And here's food for thought; after the first innings of his seventh Test, Pietersen only had three more runs and his average was ten runs lower.

During the 1990s, England's endless quest was for a reliable No. 3 as the likes of Graeme Hick, Mark Ramprakash and John Crawley came and went. Since then Mark Butcher made it his own from 2001 until 2004, Robert Key has had a go and got a double century and Michael Vaughan has occasionally dazzled. It is impossible to say a veteran of seven matches has cracked Test cricket - just look at the jolt Michael Clarke's career has had since his meteoric rise - but Cook looks the real deal.

Ian Bell came out of his shell with what he said was his 'most fluent' Test innings © Getty Images
Ian Bell - three years Cook's senior - is another who tried out first-wicket down to find a home at Test level. Scores of 71 and 92 in Pakistan then a 57 at Mohali suggested it might not be beyond him, but at the start of the summer Cook's case had already become irresistible and Bell couldn't find a place anywhere in the team. Andrew Flintoff's injury gave him another chance - this time at No. 6 - and he has yet to put a foot wrong, although he admits his new position is not always easy. "It's quite difficult watching four hours of batting and getting pad rash," he said. "I've enjoyed the opportunity to go out and play with a bit more freedom."

Though he made a stylish first-innings century in the opening Test he wore the look of a man on borrowed time, aware that he would be the fall-guy for Flintoff's return and he reiterated here: "We are without some big players and it's important when we get the opportunity as young players that we take them." However, just as Flintoff's extended absence freed up Andrew Strauss yesterday the same happened for Bell in this innings. "It was my most fluent innings," was his significant statement. "From the start my feet were going and everything was working well."

He hasn't done it the easy way either, batting with the tail on both occasions. He was on 19 when Geraint Jones fell and was quick to praise the lower order. "Even if they aren't scoring runs they are holding up an end and I think they played the pace really well and dealt with the spinners too. We frustrated Pakistan and that was to our advantage when we bowled again."

But he showed a confidence that has been absent from some of his earlier Test innings. So far, only Strauss's dodgy call at Lord's has proved Bell's downfall as he states his case for an Ashes berth in no uncertain terms. Yet even with two Test centuries in three innings, Bell is far from certain of a starting place at Brisbane as the battle between England's young brigade heats up. Tellingly, however, he sounded more confident than two weeks ago at Lord's: "When we get the big guns back there will be plenty to choose from."

Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo