India v England, 1st Test, Nagpur, 1st day March 1, 2006

Rookie Cook's tasty treat

Paul Coupar's verdict on Alastair Cook's impressive debut
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Alastair Cook dished up some delightful strokes, quite belying his debut status © Getty Images

In a recent interview, England's youngest ever Test debutant, the granite-hard Brian Close was asked if he felt under pressure on his debut in 1949. "Pressure!" he spluttered, "there's no such thing as pressure. Pressure's a journalist's word."

Watching the opener Alastair Cook, at 21 a veteran compared with 19-year-old Close, begin his Test career today it looked almost as if there could be something in Close's comments beyond his harder-than-thou Yorkshire bravado.

The serene way Cook reached 60, England's highest score of the day, with bread-and-butter drives, and leg-side flicks, was almost a disservice to himself, belying how tough conditions were here in sun-baked central India. Irfan Pathan found swing and Sreesanth the pace that Greg Chappell wanted to help liven India's monochrome seam attack. And that was the easy part.

Next came two wicked and unrelenting spinners, bowling under a Nagpur sun hot enough to fry an egg. To add to the difficulties, Cook had only flown into India on Sunday night after an epic West Indies to India trip, he is just two and a half years out of school and has played only a handful of first-class innings since September.

And it was his debut, which matters, whatever Close said.

All those issues were bubbling under the surface as he sailed smoothly on, after getting started with a beautifully controlled hook shot for four. Though Harbhajan Singh's wrong'un brought some involuntary jabs, against the seamers he looked a Trescothick with foot movement.

It took the ball of the day, a Pathan inducker than detonated his stumps, to budge him, which is more than could be said for some of his team-mates. Afterwards Cook breezed through the press conference in just the same assured way, admitting that the last minutedness of it all had helped: "It's almost the best way, not really thinking about it. "

In part, his success is a team triumph: consistent selection means players are less terrified of being one Test from the axe; a successful team means the media are not looking for new Messiahs; and Duncan Fletcher has shown a shrewd eye in picking the right characters, even if they have first-class averages that are, well, average. (Cook's is not: 42.88 in 37 first-class games before today with six hundreds - and that doesn't even include a double against Australia last summer, which wasn't first-class. At the same age in his career, another prodigy, Mark Ramprakash, had just one century.)

Back in the bad old days England used to sprinkle caps among county players like confetti at a wedding. But things have changed. In the 1989 Ashes series they used 29 players. In the last one they used 12. One of the bowlers in that 1989 series, Phil DeFreitas, recently spoke of his debut, talking honestly about anxiety and pressure (and that's just about rooming with Ian Botham). Given the backbiting and self-protection endemic in the teams of the 1980 and 90s it was hardly surprising so many new players flopped.

The performance of debutants is a good barometer of the well-being of a team, and today Cook shone which, for England, is some good news on a bad day in Nagpur.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer and will be covering the first two Tests for Cricinfo