England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Lord's May 9, 2006

Confident Cook senses his moment

'For me and Monty a home debut is something totally new...I've just got to make sure my mind is fully focused' © Getty Images
Somewhere beneath his poised and upright exterior, Alastair Cook claims to harbour a shred of nervousness. But as he and his fellow winter debutant, Monty Panesar, faced the media ahead of their anticipated home debuts on Thursday, the fear of failure was clearly not weighing too heavily on his mind.

After hurtling into the national consciousness with a brilliant century on debut, Cook is inked in to bat at No. 3 when the first Test against Sri Lanka gets underway at Lord's. North-West London in early May is a world away from the heat and hubbub of Nagpur, but for Cook all things are equal when he steps on a cricket field. He was allowing nothing to faze him.

Not even the prospect of shifting from the opener's slot to one-down, a position he has not played in regularly since his days as a club batsman for Maldon in Essex. "There's not really any difference," he shrugged. "The only difference is you put your feet up while the other lads go out straight away. It's still the same game, and I'll still go through the same things to make sure my game is right."

"I always get a bit nervous every time I bat," he insisted, although England's fans have yet to witness any evidence to support this claim. This is a man who believes that international cricket is his birthright, and though his chance has come about because of Michael Vaughan's injury, he is not about to be regarded as a stop-gap Test cricketer.

"Obviously Vaughan is going to be captain when's back, but if you keep scoring runs, then they can't leave you out," he grinned. "I was disappointed to miss the Test in Mumbai through illness, so I'm glad I've got another chance now to stake a claim and score a few runs to keep my place."

"It's a fantastic time to be involved, on the back of the Ashes while everyone's interested in cricket," Cook added. "For me and Monty a home debut is something totally new. We've not done this before, so it's a good place to learn. But our main focus will come when we get out there to the middle. I've just got to make sure my mind is fully focused."

Panesar, for his part, was the more diffident character, although to be a rookie spinner in the earliest home Test in English history is not quite the same as being presented with perfect slow-bowling conditions in Nagpur or Mumbai. "I'm trying not to complicate things too much," he said. "I've got a good rhythm this season, so I'll be trying to get the ball in the right areas and keep things simple."

Matching up against the great Muttiah Muralitharan will be a daunting prospect for Panesar, but at least the pair have got one thing in common - neither has yet played a Test at Lords. Murali's first appearance in England was his 16-wicket haul at The Oval in a one-off Test in 1998, while he missed the Lord's match four years later with a shoulder injury.

"He's got so many variations, and as a world-class spinner, he's someone you look up to," said Panesar. "You just want to learn and observe." Cook, on the other hand, displayed few concerns about his impending contest with Murali, having coped with the twin threat of Harbhajan and Kumble after arriving in Nagpur just 48 hours before his debut in March.

"I've watched him on TV, so know what he does," added Cook. "Obviously it's a different perspective when you face him, but it gives you an idea, and I'll be going up to people who've played him well and getting hints off them." Naturally enough the man he replaced in India, Marcus Trescothick, who scored a century in his first encounter with Murali in 2000-01, will be the first man to whom he will turn for advice. "It's not rocket science," shrugged Cook.

Cook's performances in India have confirmed his ability to an admiring public, but most importantly, they have given the man himself a sense of belonging. "It gives you that inner belief," he admitted. "It's not so much the unknown of Test cricket any more. I know it'll never be as smooth as that every time, but I know I've scored a hundred and I know I can do it again."

He's had an early setback in this summer as well, recording a sixth-ball duck for England A against the Sri Lankans at Worcester last week, but his failure was hardly noticed, as the tourists were routed inside three days. "We did what we were told to do, and went out and thumped them," he said unequivocally. "The wicket had a little bit in it for our bowlers and they did fantastically well. Hopefully that's got their confidence down a bit, so we can exploit it this week."

Nothing, it seems, can get at Cook's confidence at present. At the age of 21 years and 135 days, the world really is his oyster.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo