Stoneman hits century as England find their groove

Mark Stoneman raises his bat after bringing up his century Getty Images

England XI 3 for 337 (Stoneman 111, Cook 70, Root 62*, Malan 57*) lead Cricket Australia XI 250 (Short 51, Woakes 6-57) by 87 runs

Townsville is, in many ways, a ferocious place.

Oh, it's pretty. It has a mountain range, a shoreline and beautiful forests. The shops and bars seem nice, too.

But the sun is brutal and the wind is fierce. It doesn't rain for years at a time - literally - and the land provides a home for snakes, wild dogs, scorpions and spiders so large it's hard to believe they're not ponies on the way to a fancy dress party. "Don't worry," the locals tell you. "The bigger they are the less poisonous they are." But these spiders can beat you to death. They can wait for you in a dark carpark, steal your wallet and demand protection money from local businesses.

But even though there's something that can burn, bite, poison or sting you just about every square inch, it's still preferable to be on land than in the water. Because if you find yourself in the water round here (lakes or sea, anyway; the shower is fine once you've checked for spiders) you're in real trouble. You'll be sharing with sharks, crocodiles and jelly-fish all of which will delight in killing you. Beaches in Queensland have been shut 50 times in recent weeks for one of the above and, at present in Townsville, there is a warning about a four metre croc (described as a "problem crocodile" as opposed to all those laidback easy-going ones) that is lurking close to shore.

The bats have rabies, the koalas have chlamydia and even the magpies - vast, pterodactyl-like creatures that threaten to carry you off in their talons - have been known to kill. "Ah, don't worry," a local said on Thursday. "The worst those spiders can do is paralyse you." It'll be a miracle if any of us get out alive.

But, for a few hours on Thursday, the middle at the Riverway Stadium looked like paradise. For batsmen, at least. The pitch was gentle, the bowling even more so and Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman seized the opportunity with both hands.

Stoneman has looked fine all trip. He has passed 50 every time he has come to the crease and here became the first man on the tour to register a century. He gave one chance - Nick Larkin, at gully, put him down on 41 off Simon Milenko; Larkin, the one man with a first-class hundred in this CA side, sustained a fracture and will not feature in the rest of this match - but generally looked utterly in command. He doesn't hook - he tends to duck the bouncer - but he pulls nicely, cuts very well and has a lovely, fluid drive. There were many jokes about Australians never having heard of several of this England squad when they arrived: it seems safe to suggest they'll know the Stoneman name before he heads home.

Underlining England's mantra about going on to convert good starts in match-defining scores, Stoneman didn't even take off his helmet to acknowledge the applause when he reached three figures: a century can't be seen as a destination by England on this tour; it has to be a landmark on the way to a more distant goal. He was angry with himself - punching his bat in frustration - for scuffing a return catch to the legspinner Daniel Fallins shortly after tea.

Cook's innings might be more significant. With England's batting line-up lacking experience in these conditions - the likely top nine will, excluding him, have a combination of six Test caps in Australia between them - his knowledge of three previous tours provides reassurance. He has looked horribly out of form until this innings, but here looked comfortable and confident. From his very first delivery, when the ball thudded against the middle of his defensive bat, his movements were more certain, his judgement more precise.

He looked furious with himself for his dismissal - attempting to guide a cut behind point, he managed only an edge - and for missing out on a hundred, but this was a good step forward from him. He, and the England management, will sleep a little easier as a result.

The one nagging worry - and it nagged particularly hard as Dawid Malan and Joe Root settled in against unthreatening spin bowling in the final session - is that this surface and this opposition will bear little comparison to that anticipated in Brisbane. It's like preparing for an artic trek by buying yourself a cornetto. England may still be in for a shock in Brisbane.

Opinion is divided over whether this represents a desperately cynical ploy from Cricket Australia or simply reflects the shallowing depth of their playing reserves. If it is the latter, they have a significant problem lurking just below the surface. If it is the former, there might be a certain poetic justice if this tactic came back to bite Cricket Australia on the backside like one of those spiders that lurks under the toilet bowl round these parts (yes, nowhere is safe). While it is undeniably true that the standard of opposition - and the pace of surfaces - will increase sharply next week, it may be that England have had the opportunity to acclimatise, gain confidence and form ahead of the serious business ahead.

James Vince was the one man to fail to take advantage. Since the 82 he made to start the tour - a non-first-class innings that saw him dropped twice - he has fallen between 26 and 33 in his three subsequent innings. He has time to play the ball and is wonderfully easy on the eye, but there is a vulnerability that renders his selection at No. 3 quite a risk. While he was given not out here initially, the umpires consulted and it was eventually decided he had played one off his pad to short leg. He looked aghast at the decision. Or, perhaps, at having missed out. Batting in first-class cricket in Australia has rarely looked as comfortable.