England's five successful new-starters March 20, 2006

Beginners' luck

Will Luke comments on the remarkably successful run of debutants England have produced in the last two years



88 in his first Test innings for Owais Shah. It's an easy game, this... © AFP

Losing to Pakistan before Christmas wasn't part of England's grand plan. Nor were the countless and near-farcical run of injuries that affected the team's preparation for their tour of India. As the saying doesn't go, one man's dodgy knee is another man's debut, and England are harvesting a fine crop lately.

Andrew Strauss started the trend in 2004 with a hundred against New Zealand. He might have had two in the match, but for Nasser Hussain running him out in the second innings; Hussain duly retired - not through guilt, you understand - leaving Strauss to score hundreds with a panache and solidity some former openers could only dream of.

Ian Bell, who had coaches and experts salivating from a very early age, made what some thought was a belated introduction to Test cricket a few weeks after Strauss. Facing a barrage from two young and rather raw West Indians - Tino Best and Fidel Edwards - he made an assured 70, and looked every bit the Test batsman English supporters assumed he would become.

Then followed the bombast: the indisputably gifted and swaggering Kevin Pietersen. He had already made introduced himself to the one-day game in South Africa the previous winter, launching a series of ferocious assaults on his former countrymen and demonstrating an arrogance and self-belief not commonly associated with England players, let alone those making the usually turbulent transition from county cricket. A pair of fifties against Australia for the opening match of the Ashes in 2005 confirmed his lust for playing the best. Who hits Glenn McGrath for six in his first Test, anyway?



Alastair Cook made a sublime start to his Test career: a fifty and a hundred in his debut game © Getty Images

England's preparations to their tour of India were nothing short of a shambles, and a trifle depressing too, but paths have since been paved for the future of the team. Alastair Cook's remarkably composed century at Nagpur followed the 214 he caressed for Essex against the touring Australians last summer. Like Bell and Pietersen before him, he too has been spoken of in whispered tones of distinction for several seasons. And like Bell and Pietersen, his first game for England appeared nothing more than natural progression.

Are we seeing a trend here; young players who now have the confidence and belief to morph from county-basher to accomplished Test batsman? That same conversion which so rarely produced international players for England in the 1990s?

Of all the recent debutants, with the exception of Strauss, Owais Shah has found the transition the most tricky. His abundance of natural talent had Middlesex fans rubbing their hands with glee and, after captaining England Under-19 in 1998, it was when, not if, he would make the next step up the ladder. Rumours fluttered around Lord's that he used to bat left-handed in the nets as competently as his normal right-handed stance, which only compounded the selectors' frustration that he wasn't scoring any runs. Until last season, when he topped the first-class list with 1728 runs at a healthy average of 66.46, with seven hundreds too.

Plucked from the Caribbean where he had been on tour with England A, like Alastair Cook, it came as no surprise that he should make a cool fifty at Mumbai, full of the bottom-handed wristiness that he has employed to such good effect for his county. What did surprise was his attitude. Although admittedly he isn't the quietest individual, he clearly unsettled India with his cocksureness. Confident debutants? Whatever next?

Perhaps we are in an age where debutants' preparations are now so thorough, so professional and so mechanised that their entry to Test cricket is made all the more serene. Regardless of the whys, England's latest yield does warm the cockles.

Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo

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