India v England, 1st Test, Nagpur, 4th day March 4, 2006

Easy Cook books place in history

Alastair Cook rates the Test experience so far as "unreal" © Getty Images
Soon after 5pm today a sweaty Indian fielder underarmed the ball back to Harbhajan Singh. Poor Harbhajan, having just seen a third possible wicket slip through Indian fingers, angrily swatted it away with his palm. He then sent down the final delivery of the over in a cursory fashion. The reason for that soon became clear: he was obviously saving his energy to hurl his white sunhat, Frisbee-fashion, 20 yards towards fine leg.

Moments after that Alastair Cook reached his first Test hundred, to go with 60 in the first innings. (Born on Christmas Day he is probably used to all his presents coming at once.) Last Friday he was trying to bat his way into the sights of the England selectors in Antigua. Today he was standing in the middle of a bemused circle of Indian fielders beaming in the sunshine. Antigua to adulation in one week.

These were scenes so utterly bizarre that if they'd been imagined four days ago almost no one would have believed them. "Unreal", was how Cook described the feeling.

Equally alien is the question now facing England. Will the game, like the kite that soared near the ground for much of today, now drift away on the thermals to a draw? Or can England swoop for the kill? Tomorrow India need a defensive batting effort less flimsy than their first; England - now 367 ahead - need 10 wickets after an early declaration.

Despite the cinematic moments, it felt like a scene-setting kind of day, which was testament to just how easy Cook and Kevin Pietersen made batting look. It quickly became clear who was on top and England stayed there.

That was largely thanks to Cook. The last Englishman to make a Test century aged 21 was David Gower. The last specialist opener to milk the Indian attack for a hundred on debut was Gordon Greenidge. The last batter to do so was Michael Clarke, at Bangalore in 2003-04, a match Australia went on to win.

Cook resembles none of them especially: less brilliant than Gower, less brutal than Greenidge and less brash than Clarke. But, with his neat leg-side flicks and the odd cover drive for variety, he looks a model of neat efficiency. Locals say they have seldom seen anyone play Harbhajan and Kumble with such quiet assurance. "Having jetlag from Antigua, the pressure was off me," he said later.

As the morning began he was there, as the fans went for their tea-time fruit punch he was still there and as the shadows stretched across the pitch he had still not given over. Dropped twice he was also helped by Pietersen, who hit an 87 that in patches could have been a beer match, such was the festive spirit of it all. "All I had to do was make sure KP had the strike."

It was maybe a bit too easy for England's liking because they need wickets tomorrow and only three were squeezed from a slow pitch today. But India's batting line-up has more natural strokeplayers than it used to. And the scuffed patches of brown on the pitch are encroaching further and further onto the relatively unscathed beige middle. Cook rated England's chance as "excellent".

The fate of the series leans heavily on the outcome tomorrow. In India a good start to a series tends not to be overhauled. Barring the miracle of 2000-01 - when Laxman and Harbhajan turned Australia's plentiful bread and fish back into a crust and a sardine - no side has won the first Test and lost the series in India since the hosts against Gower's 1984-85 side. On the other hand, since then, only one series that began with a draw has ever gone against India. Tomorrow should be quite a day.

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