England v India: Alastair Cook needs ugly hundred - Agnew

By Jonathan AgnewBBC cricket correspondent
England captain Alastair Cook
Alastair Cook has won nine of his 23 matches as England captain
First Test: England v India
Venue: Trent Bridge, 9-13 July
Coverage: Ball-by-ball Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, tablet and mobile devices. Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website/app

The five-Test series between England and India, which begins at Trent Bridge on Wednesday, is hugely important for both sides.

The tourists haven't won a Test overseas since 2011, which is simply not good enough for a team with their talent.

England, meanwhile, have lost six of their past seven Tests home and away and it's paramount they begin to reverse the slide.

They should have won both of their recent Tests against Sri Lanka, and it was a really poor performance to lose the second match of the series at Headingley, after the tourists hung on for a draw at Lord's.

So what must England do to beat India over a five-match Test series?

Captain Cook to lead from the front

Former England batsman Kevin Pietersen has said the dressing room is unhappyexternal-link under Alastair Cook and that senior players are not turning up for their captain, but I don't buy into any of that stuff.

The way James Anderson broke down in tears on the podium at Headingley was all to do with the crushing disappointment of narrowly failing to save a game and nothing to do with an unhappy dressing room.

James Anderson, England bowler
Anderson was out to the penultimate ball of the final day of England's second Test against Sri Lanka

I've never seen a player so choked before, and that's because he gave absolutely everything to save that Test - only to be dismissed with the penultimate delivery of the match.

Cook is very respected by the rest of his team, but he's still got to go out there and perform - which means scoring runs and leading from the front.

What Cook needs to do now is grind his way to a really ugly hundred. I remember Andrew Strauss scoring a similar hundred against New Zealand in 2008.

He had to do it to save his career, and it ended up catapulting England into a really good run of form.

Go big in the first innings

To win this series, England obviously need to score lots of runs.

We don't know what the pitches are going to be like, but I don't think they will be prepared to take spin like last year. There will be a bit of grass left on them so it will always be difficult for the captain who wins the toss: does he put the other team in or bat first?

That puts Cook in a tricky position because if he bats first on a green pitch and gets out caught behind to a delivery which does a bit, he will get criticised.

Equally, if he decides to put India in and they get a lot of runs he will also be questioned. That's where he is at the moment with his captaincy and form.

Alastair Cook as England Test captain
Matches: 23 Wins: 9 Defeats: 7 Draws: 7

However, the way the new batsmen in the England team played in the series against Sri Lanka was impressive. Sam Robson, Gary Ballance and Moeen Ali scored centuries while Joe Root hit a double hundred.

Moeen's innings at Headingley has almost been overlooked. He batted superbly on that final day, when he really dug in.

He played to the situation, and for someone to do that in only his second Test was outstanding.

Right down to Matt Prior, England have got to put runs on the board. Then, and especially if India only play four bowlers, the hosts have an exciting lower order which has enough firepower to punish a tiring attack.

Get the balance of the team right

Ben Stokes, England cricketer
All-rounder Ben Stokes scored England's only century in last winter's 5-0 Ashes defeat in Australia

I suspect Ben Stokes has a great chance of playing ahead of Chris Jordan at Trent Bridge.

However, England will give that decision a lot of thought because Jordan is a very good cricketer - both with bat and ball, and also in the slips.

Slip fielding is important - especially when the pitch is green. Ballance has already dropped catches in there in his short Test career, so it's something for England to consider.

I don't see Moeen as a number one spin bowler just yet but hopefully that will come if he develops quickly.

He got two important wickets at Headingley, and the more wickets he gets, the more people will have confidence in his bowling.

Ben Stokes Test career
Four Tests, debut against Australia at Adelaide in December 2013
Has scored 279 runs at an average of 34.87, with a high score of 120
Has taken 15 wickets at an average of 32.80, with a best return of 6-99

Find a brand of cricket that works

I want to see successful cricket from England, and I don't care how they do it. They need to get out there and do what works for them.

Cook is naturally a defensive captain - that's how he was brought up - but so was Strauss, and he has been the strongest influence on Cook.

You can't expect Cook, in his position, to go out there and start throwing the bat about. If he makes a mistake and pays for it, it won't help his cause.

I expect a cautious brand of cricket from both sides. It's a five-Test series so nobody will want to do something reckless and go 1-0 down.

And the tourists?

It's been a transitional period for India, who have seen players like Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar retire in the past couple of years.

Now all the big guns have gone, Duncan Fletcher has a young team he can mould in his own style.

It will be great to see the likes of Virat Kohli playing in a Test match in English conditions and knuckling down. He is a great player with a great temperament but he will find that a challenge.

I also wonder how dangerous off-spinner R Ashwin will be in English conditions.

It might come down to who plays seam bowling the best.

Virat Kohli, India batsman
Virat Kohli, 25, has scored 1,721 runs at an average of 46.51 in his 24-Test career

The verdict

I think it will be really tight because neither team will want to give an inch and, for reasons already discussed, it might not be the most exhilarating series.

The first two Tests will be cagey and both sides will take stock after that. It will be fascinating nonetheless.

Jonathan Agnew was talking to BBC Sport's Marc Higginson