England v India: Cook falls just short of century as Ballance reaches three figures
Last Updated: 29/07/14 1:18pm
Alastair Cook fell agonisingly short of a century, but Gary Ballance did reach three figures as England dominated the opening day of the third Test against India.
The under-pressure England skipper contributed a much-needed 95 as he combined with Ballance to put his team in a dominant position at the Ageas Bowl, the hosts reaching the close on 247-2.
England's most prolific centurion had luck on his side in the first session and appeared set to make it count by taking his career tally to 26 hundreds - 14 months and 28 innings after his 25th.
He answered his many critics with a fine hand at the top of the order, but sadly the century was not to be as Ravindra Jadeja - the man who dropped Cook on 15 - eventually got him caught-behind down the leg-side from a bottom-edged pull 80 runs later.
England nonetheless took control, after winning the toss, with a superb second-wicket stand of 158 between Cook and the prolific Ballance (104no) who notched his third hundred of the summer in only his sixth Test.
The England captain and Sam Robson also shared their first half-century opening stand together, at the eighth attempt although Cook, under intense pressure as his team try to arrest a run of seven defeats in nine matches, might easily have gone much more cheaply on a bright but cloudy morning.
He survived when he poked out at a Pankaj Singh delivery from around the wicket and should have become the debutant's maiden Test victim only for Jadeja to put down a straightforward chance at third slip.
Cook appeared tentative early on, but nonetheless went past first Kevin Pietersen and then, after lunch, David Gower to move up to third in England's list of all-time Test runscorers.
Robson was the more convincing opener, with cover-driven fours off Kumar and then Shami, until the latter saw him off with a touch of extra bounce - Jadeja safe this time with the mirror-image chance at third slip.
Cook gradually grew in confidence on the way to his highest score since he made 130 against New Zealand at Headingley early last summer.
On a pitch with pace and carry, England were doubtless relieved there was no threat from Ishant Sharma - the tall seamer who helped to put India 1-0 up at Lord's six days ago, but who is injured here.
Without him, India needed Kumar and Shami to be at their best - and although the two canny seamers regularly beat the bat, they found precious few edges.
Cook passed his first half-century since the Melbourne Test last Christmas, when he pulled Shami for two soon after lunch, and Ballance established a similar tempo on the way to his fifth score of 50 or more in only 10 Test innings to date.
It seemed both would convert to three figures - and after Cook fell just short, Ballance made no mistake.
Joined by an initially scratchy Ian Bell, with the second new ball taken immediately after it became available, England's new inked-in number three completed his chanceless hundred with a back cut off Mohammed Shami for his 15th four.
The left-hander will now hope to convert his knock into a big hundred on day two as England look to lay the foundations for a series-levelling victory in Southampton.