Cook sets early benchmark with fine century


England opener Alastair Cook typified the high standard expected of the battle for the number one Test ranking with a superb century on day one of the series opener against South Africa at The Oval on Thursday.

Alastair Cook typified the high standard expected of the battle for the number one Test ranking with a superb century on day one of the series opener at The Oval on Thursday.

The South African attack, although not as undercooked as anticipated, struggled to come to terms with a pretty flat pitch as England climbed to 267 for three at stumps after captain Andrew Strauss won the toss and elected to bat first.

His decision, regardless of the overhead conditions, was the right one – and Cook took full advantage, even if his skipper could not.

Strauss was out to the fourth ball of the day, trapped dead enough in front of the stumps for Morne Morkel to insist on a review after umpire Steve Davis rejected his lbw appeal. The decision to give Morkel the new ball alongside Vernon Philander ahead of Dale Steyn, who will be first to admit he prefers bowling to right-handers, bore early fruit. Rooted to his crease and out for a duck, the left-handed Strauss cut a mopey figure en route back to the pavilion.

South Africa's elation at the fall of Strauss was entirely shortlived, with Cook and Jonathan Trott promptly assuming command across the remainder of the first session. Relatively uninspired and largely hampered by a slew of rubbish coughed up down the leg-side, a seam attack renowned for consistent, collective drive seemed distant. Leg-spinner Imran Tahir found little turn and ended the day the most expensive of the lot. Regular long-hops, easily dispatched to the ropes by Cook in particular, certainly didn't help his cause.

Cook and Trott took full toll, flanking the lunch break with an outstanding alliance. Their 170- run stand inside 57 overs, though not majestically entertaining, characterised Test match batting to a tee. Occupancy of the crease took precedent over runs on the board, which duly translated to ultimate progress across the scoreboard.

Trott, well set and with one eye on a century, was livid with himself when he afforded Morkel his second wicket. Lazily driving at a full delivery, the right-hander only succeeded in spooning a straightforward catch to AB de Villiers, who enjoyed a solid day behind the stumps in the absence of the Mark Boucher.

Kevin Pietersen, though, was prompt in picking up where Trott left off, and in far more aggressive fashion. Hot on the heels of a swashbuckling double-century for Surrey in the County Championship recently, Pietersen was eager to continue the cavalier trend. It lasted, to an extent, before Jacques Kallis shortly before the availability of the second new ball.

Luring the hard-hitting right-hander into a well-planned trap with a slew of short deliveries, Kallis finally convinced Pietersen to attack one. The pull shot, however, was a long way from finding the middle of the bat and de Villiers again was at hand for the edge. Out for 42, Pietersen new full well the opportunity missed.

Cook, meanwhile, graduated to a sound century. The 20th of his Test career, the milestone saw him draw level – in third place – with Pietersen, Ken Barrington and Graham Gooch in the list of most centuries by an Englishman. Three more and he will pass Wally Hammond and Colin Cowdrey at the helm of the prolific pile.

With Ian Bell along for the ride and fast finding his feet, Cook moved to 114 not out at the close of play. A further five runs will take him to his highest score against South Africa before he begins to pinpoint even bigger targets.

Proteas captain Graeme Smith, in the interim, needs a sharp tweak in his gameplan if his 100th Test cap is to end in success, or at the very least a draw, given the soggy forecast for the weekend.

<b>Jonhenry Wilson</b>