England v West Indies, 1st Test, Lord's, 1st day May 17, 2007

Cook shows the benefits of a break

Alastair Cook: back with a bang © Getty Images
The Lord's slope was not the only lop-sided aspect of the opening day of England's international season. Despite the alarming speed with which the summer has tagged along behind an interminable winter, the main man of the match so far has had a leisurely four months in which to offload his Ashes baggage and prepare himself for the start of this new chapter. Alastair Cook today demonstrated the benefits of a proper break from the game, as he strode effortlessly to his fifth Test century in 15 international appearances.

The Ashes this was not, however, for set against him were a quartet of bowlers who have had precisely the wrong type of break. West Indies have been virtually inactive since their arrival in England last week. Rain reduced their solitary warm-up game to just 48 overs, none of which were spent in the field, and though they hauled it back to an extent, England's honours were secured in a truncated morning session. "I don't want to blame it on lack of practice, we are all professionals," said the pick of the attack, Daren Powell. "Our radar wasn't hitting the target as often as we should. We were all over the place."

It was a funny sort of day, punctuated by regular breaks for bad light and governed by a sleepy puzzlement that everyone was back in whites. Inevitably there was a packed house, and the Queen was present as well, but the excitement was undoubtedly of the low-octane variety. When Investec, the new sponsors of the Lord's press box, started handing out snoozing zebras to the bemused incumbents, it seemed their choice of gift had been determined by the state of play out in the middle.

And yet, Cook treated this latest opportunity to make hay with his usual equanimity - until, that is, he brought up his century with a steer through the covers. Then it was all emotion, fist-pumping and bat-flashing, as Lord's once again became his personal fiefdom. "It's not a bad one to have a good'un," he shrugged, after three visits in which he has made two hundreds and an 89. "I hope it continues."

There is every chance of that happening when play continues tomorrow, for Cook is proving to be an accumulator par excellence. He's had some pretty handy guidance in that respect, mind you. His mentor at Essex, Graham Gooch, has been in his ear throughout his England career, urging him subliminally not to throw it away. " Every time you get to a hundred, you've got that Goochie voice in your head - make it a big'un, make it a daddy," he said. "When you're in good form, those are the days you nick one for nought and watch everyone else get the runs, so when it's your turn you make it as big as you can."

Every time you get to a hundred, you've got that Goochie voice in your head - make it a big'un, make it a daddy

Cook is still so fresh-faced it is scary. He is a mere 22 years and 143 days, the sort of age at which English Test batsmen are usually still in nappies, and yet already he has five Test hundreds to his name - for an intriguing point of comparison, the great Sachin Tendulkar had eight at the same age. On three occasions he has struck in his first innings against new opponents, a trait that he shares with Andrew Strauss and Mark Taylor, among others, and all the while there is the promise of more to come.

Hunger is what drives him on, however, for much as he has benefitted from a chance to take stock after the Ashes, he is in no mood to be allowed a similar break in the future. "It has been a while since January 6 [the end of the Sydney Test]," he said. "I've been watching [the World Cup] in England, see them playing on TV and wanting to be there, and then you're a part of it again. That's why it meant so much today."

For some funny reason, Cook was not spoken about a great deal during the World Cup. As England floundered for any semblance of form or momentum, precociousness and reliability did not seem to be the blend of attributes that their gameplan was crying out for. In a stodgy campaign that spluttered into life only during their very last game against West Indies in Barbados, nobody really believed that another top-order accumulator would have been the answer to their prayers.

And yet, in hindsight, it all seems forehead-slappingly obvious. England's self-proclaimed strategy was to build a platform and dive into the middle overs, and yet not once in nine consecutive matches were they able to get through their first 20 overs without alarm. Today, with Cook the coolest man in the county, they reached 85 for 0 in those same number of overs - as the Australians have always advocated, the best will be the best regardless of which form of the game you are playing.

Cook, however, wasn't entirely unhappy about his enforced break from international cricket. "I had a good couple of months away from the cameras, away from the pressure of playing," he said. "I got on with my other life, seeing people I haven't seen, because if you play a lot of cricket it can drag you down a bit. It was a great time to work at my game, away from everyone looking.

"What happened [in Australia] I wouldn't wish it on anyone's worst enemy," he said. "Those feelings in those certain games, it's hard now to bring it up. A lot of people went through hell on that tour, but you you learn more from when you do badly than when you do well. Cricket is as much mental as it is technical. I had a few technical issues to iron out, but it's just decision-making, it's always decision-making."

Though it had been a lengthy stint at the crease, Cook's eyes positively twinkled at the prospect of more runs upon the resumption. "I'd love to get a double-hundred," he said. "When you're in possession you've got to score as many as you can, especially with Vaughany coming back." But he had to check himself when asked whether this felt like a new era for England. "Not really," he started, "it's always important, your first game of the summer for England ... "

But then he realised he is only 22 and 143 days, and he's only started previous summer for England. No wonder his excitement today was so tangible.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo