Amongst the newcomers rushed into action, Alastair Cook alone has proved that he belongs in the highest company, writes PETER ROEBUCK
Alastair Cook's emergence as a calm, correct young batsman has been English cricket's only ray of sunshine during a long, hard winter. Thrown into the deep end by the rash of injuries that has bedevilled the team ever since the Ashes were reclaimed, most of his colleagues have drowned. Although willing and sometimes lively, none of the bowlers has been accurate enough to trouble accomplished batsmen on mild surfaces. Runs have been given away like sweets in an election campaign.
Defeat has followed defeat. Aided and abetted by the complacency that often follows sudden glory, the injuries have ruined England's hopes of claiming the top position for the first time since Typhoon Tyson was at his peak. Instead Pakistan has replaced it in second place, and Rahul Dravid's men are snapping at its heal like some forgotten spaniel. Having lost its captain, several bowlers and some of its focus, England has fallen back.
Amongst the newcomers rushed into action, Cook alone has proved that he belongs in the highest company. Promise is not enough in Test cricket. Performances alone count. It is an uncompromising battle between nations, not a finishing school. A player must score runs or take wickets else the axe will fall. The world is full of sportsmen on the verge of achievement. Often the flame merely flickers, and then fizzles out. In some cases technique is found wanting, elsewhere temperament is the weak point. Some men relish the exposure to Test cricket, others find it too intrusive. Some lose their heads, and then their positions.
Cook has met the challenge. Luck has played its part in his rise. Had Michael Vaughan's knee continued to carry out its duties, the novice might yet be stroking the ball around in Chelmsford. Not that it would have bothered him. Although eager to rise, he was not tormented by ambition. Frustration did not eat away at his innards. Rather he retained his balance, played his cricket to the best of his ability, learnt from experience and concentrated on scoring lots of runs. Luck has a way of rewarding such men.
Not that Cook lacked drive. To the contrary he has taken every chance he has been given, a quality also detected in Kevin Pietersen. On the surface the pair do not have much in common. Where the lofty left-hander is polished and reserved, the African is rough-hewn and abrasive.
Whilst the Essex batsman plays handsome strokes and scores unobtrusively, his teammate bashes and brutalises. Both, though, have found Test cricket to their immediate liking. In his own way Cook is every bit as determined and ambitious as his more belligerent comrade. In both cases the apprenticeship was brief. The first indication that steel could be found beneath Cook's genial exterior came in 2005 as he demolished a startled Australian attack.
Most of the summer had passed and it was too late to secure selection for the Ashes. Sent to India as an afterthought, Cook took to the atmosphere like dal to a roti.
From the outset he felt at home. Nor was his game found wanting. Obviously his height and left-handedness helped. In the past small batsmen dominated the game. Nowadays beanpoles prosper. Southpaws have always been heavily represented.
In any event Cook made a fine start. Nor did he falter upon returning home. Selected as a stopgap, he has established himself in the side. Cook and Pietersen are here to stay. Now England needs to find fresh bowlers with the same outlook, or the Ashes cannot be retained.