England Lions 310 for 2 (Cook 154*, Gubbins 73, Malan 59*) v India A
Alastair Cook warmed up for the Test series against India with a first century of the season at New Road.
In a storyline that could have been written at almost any time over the last six years, Cook took his chance while other top-order contenders were not quite fully able to do so.
On the sort of benign pitch that could convince bowlers they should give it all up and retrain as a plumber, Cook – playing his first innings for almost three weeks – showed the temperament and technique to suggest his game is in decent order going into the Test series. With Essex not playing in the next round of Championship matches – they have a game against India instead – it is quite possible this will be Cook’s only match before that series. It was also only his second match for England Lions (or the equivalent) since 2006; he played one in 2010.
It has recently been suggested that Cook lacks the hunger to sustain an international career that is now almost a dozen years old. But here, despite the subdued atmosphere – there were a few hundred spectators in the ground – he showed enough desire to bat all day against a decent India A attack and record his first century since the double made in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. It was a chanceless affair studded with the strokes – the cuts, the clips and the odd drive – which are so familiar.
“I spoke to Ed Smith [the National Selector] about playing in this game because we haven’t much red-ball cricket at Essex,” Cook said. “England would probably rather use these games to have a look at someone younger but I felt I needed the opportunity to play a bit of red-ball cricket so it worked really well.
“It is sometimes best when you are refreshed. Sometimes you play a lot and you can get into bad habits.”
In partnership with Nick Gubbins, Cook added 155 for the second wicket in 45 overs. While there was just a little help for the spinners – this is a dry surface and was used for the T20 match here on Sunday – the pair kept the scoreboard ticking over with Gubbins sweeping and Cook cutting regularly. Both also skipped down the pitch to loft over the top on occasions.
But Gubbins, having endured one or two uncomfortable moments against the offspin of Jayant Yadav, failed to capitalise on the foundations he had built and edged to slip after he was drawn into what he later termed a “flashy drive”.
A century here could have proved persuasive. Both Smith and James Taylor – two-thirds of the England selection panel – were here to watch and they could, perhaps, have been convinced to pick Gubbins in the Test squad to play India. While Keaton Jennings’ position at the top of the order is assured, it was possible that a strong showing here could convince the selectors to pick a third opener – either Gubbins or Rory Burns – at No. 3, move Joe Root back to No. 4 and drop Dawid Malan.
That scenario looks less likely now. With Burns falling early – he, too, was drawn into a somewhat loose drive – and Malan making a patient half-century (it took him 118 balls to reach the milestone), it would be a surprise if there were any changes to England’s top-order at Edgbaston. “It was an annoying way to get out,” Gubbins admitted afterwards. But his time may well come: this was his first first-class innings for more than two months and while he didn’t exactly seize the day, he didn’t do himself any harm, either.
He could, at least, learn from the masterclass provided at the other end. And he may reflect that the key difference between his innings and Cook’s, was that Cook was at no stage drawn into a loose drive. “He just keeps it very simple,” Gubbins said. “He does everything repetitively in a chanceless way and he has his scoring areas. And everyone knows about his powers of concentration.”
Malan seemed more determined to take this opportunity. The fact that he is playing in this match – rather than having been called up to the ODI squad – suggests the selectors were keen to take another look at him before committing to his place in the Test squad. So it was probably understandable he took a largely risk-free approach to his innings.
Some context is required. The attack, while respectable, largely lacked the weapons to make inroads on such a surface – at this stage of the match, at least – with hardly a delivery bouncing to shoulder height all day. The Lions bowlers may well also be in for some hard work in the coming days.
Navdeep Saini might warrant some consideration in a selection meeting ahead of the announcement of India’s Test squad (an announcement that may well be made on Wednesday), while and Ankit Rajpoot have the build and pace to suggest they could be a handful on a more helpful surface. Yadav, too, is a fine bowler, but Cook will know life is going to get much tougher later in the summer.