Cook recognises size of task
Somewhere between Alistair Cook's admission that defeat in England's two one-day warm-up games was "not an ideal start" and his reference to the Champions Trophy, to be held in England in June, as "high on our priorities" it was possible to sense what the five-match ODI series against India means.
With the commencing of England's split coaching arrangement - Ashley Giles taking over from Andy Flower in charge of the limited-overs sides - an inexperienced squad and a recent one-day record in India featuring far more winces than wins, Cook will be looking for incremental gains in a testing environment. England's last - and only - ODI series win in India came in 1984-85 and although Cook led his team to a first Test series victory in 28 years last month, a history-making repeat would be even more outlandish.
England enter the series as the No. 1-ranked ODI side, after winning 12 of their 14 completed matches in 2012, but they were whitewashed 5-0 on their last two visits to India, in 2011 and 2008, and lost 5-1 in 2006. If England returned to India last week full of festive cheer, following their success in the Tests and a last-ball win to draw the T20 series before Christmas, it was rudely knocked out them by defeats to India A and Delhi. Cook was spared watching both by a bout of illness that kept him out of the first match but acknowledged England must work hard to compete.
"I didn't see the first game and in the second game I think we improved a lot," Cook said. "For us to win, I think, it showed the challenge we are going to have in our hands. Our skill levels will need to improve a lot. It's going to be hell of a challenge, like the Test series in a way. We have to do something that no English team has done for a while."
Although England's batsmen faltered chasing 229 against India A, with only Ian Bell making a significant contribution, and then the bowlers not defending 294 against Delhi, Cook had only positive things to say about Giles' initial impact on the squad. "He has done well, it's obviously been testing conditions for him so far. It's very early days but he has done well. These things take time for him to get used to everyone but I think he is an excellent coach."
The surface at Rajkot is likely to be conducive to run-scoring and while there may not be much green on the pitch, there will be more than a tinge of it to England's attack, which is missing James Anderson, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad. Despite the new ODI rules on bouncers and fielders in the circle and the pace at England's disposal, particularly in the shape of Steven Finn and Stuart Meaker, Cook said it was important that his bowlers did not get carried away.
"I think in these conditions, these rules will have less of an impact than say in Australia or England on bouncier pitches," he said. "I captained the other day and having five men up was obviously different. And it's tough to bowl on these wickets, there is always a boundary option with the other man up. It's about trying out your skills and trying to make it as hard as possible for the opposition to get that boundary.
"There is very little margin for error. We found that out the last time we were here and in the two warm-up matches. Here, you get punished if you are off line and length. So that's tough on bowlers in these conditions and these quick outfields as well, there are going to be high-scoring games. We've got to try and nail those skills and keep those freebies down as much as you can.
"We have got an inexperienced side, a few experienced players missing through injuries and rotational policy. So, it will be a real big test to us as players and real good test to these guys who have been around now a bit on the international scene to try and step up."
But for all the talk of taking early wickets, keeping it tight and developing strength in depth, England are already looking beyond this series. Cook, a man once considered unsuited to ODI cricket, is now in charge of a side that can approach the Champions Trophy with genuine hopes of winning the tournament and filling a significant gap in the cabinet. "I think it's very important," Cook said. "I don't think we have won any 50-over ICC tournaments as an England side. So as a group of players, having returned home and in conditions which we are comfortable, we will try and win that. So, it's very high on our priorities."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo