Alastair Cook hit the knock he and his country so desperately needed on day one of the third Test at the Ageas Bowl as the captain led England into a position of supremacy against India.
A timely return to form
England scored slowly throughout the day, but took control as India looked increasingly frustrated. Despite losing opening partner Sam Robson early on for 26, Cook was able to steady the ship, aided by some much-welcomed good fortune.
The captain was dropped at first slip with just 15 on the scorecard, but took advantage of his change in luck to reach 95. Though agonisingly short of his first century since May 2013, amid much scrutiny of his captaincy, Cook will not need to be reminded of the significance of his innings.
He was eventually caught behind, having only just edged the ball to Mahendra Singh Dhoni off the bowling of Ravi Jadeja. That he was the driving force behind a good day at the crease will prove little to detractors of his captaincy, yet the affection with which he was received in Hampshire as he headed back to the pavilion will live long in the memory, particularly for his superiors at the ECB.
Ballance is Mr Reliable again
Nonetheless, Gary Ballance was able to go one better, notching up 104 not out, while attracting considerably less attention. The Yorkshireman’s cautious approach paid dividends, and his century – his third ton of the summer already – must not be overlooked, even if he was under less pressure.
As for India, coach Duncan Fletcher will be disappointed that his bowlers could not make more of a fairly green pitch. Debutant Pankaj Singh came in for the star of the second Test, Ishant Sharma, and was particularly unlucky not to get his first Test wicket, hindered by some poor fielding.
England coach Peter Moores was forced to make some big decisions regarding team selection, but proved he is not afraid to do so.
Liam Plunkett could reasonably have felt aggrieved upon reading the team sheet; after being arguably England’s best player in the second Test, he has been sacrificed somewhat harshly, along with Ben Stokes, who had admittedly been struggling.
Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes entered the dressing room on their behalf, hoping to bring the change required to help England level the series.
While there are still four days left, at stumps there was a resounding feeling around the ground that this Test could be the turning point in England’s longest run without a win in 21 years.
Those hopes will be boosted as long as the sight of a tired, beleaguered England captain looks a thing of the past. It is difficult to recall such an impressive captain’s performance under such pressure. A much-needed confidence boost for England’s top order was ultimately the story of the day.