Alastair Cook has told his England side they can book their Champions Trophy places if they shine in India this month.
England’s 50-over squad were due to begin their five-match one-day series in Rajkot in the early hours of this morning looking to win in India for only the second time.
Their last two attempts, in 2011 and 2008, ended in 5-0 defeats and successive warm-up defeats to India A and Delhi suggest the current crop will find life just as hard.
The absence of established stars such as the rested Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann and James Anderson and the injured Stuart Broad, who is likely to be available for the last two fixtures, is a major blow to England’s hopes, but Cook sees a positive.
Several of the current squad party are not first-choice picks, but the captain has told them a place at the Champions Trophy, held in England in June, could still be on offer.
“I don’t know how many places are up for grabs, but I would say a lot of them are,” said Cook on the eve of the match.
“I think there is a chance if people perform well and they’ve got the shirt at the moment. That’s what you want, you want competition and people pushing hard to put the people who are in the team now out.
“Performances from people on this tour, if they perform really well, will mean it’s really hard to leave out a player.
“It will be a good test of us as players, and especially those players who’ve been around now a little on the international scene, to try and step up and move into levels when they are producing match-winning performances.”
England have plenty ahead of them before the International Cricket Council’s ‘mini World Cup’ lands on their doorstep, with the ongoing series, a trip to New Zealand and a return visit from the Black Caps all to be contested.
Cook makes no apology for highlighting the importance of a major tournament on home soil.
“I think it’s a very important trophy,” said Cook. “We haven’t won an ICC 50-over tournament as an England side. So, as a group of players, we’ve got an opportunity at home, in our conditions which we’re very comfortable in, to try win that. I think it’s very high on my shopping list.”
While Cook is hopeful of some big performances from his team-mates, there is no sense of complacency.
England may go into the series ranked as the world’s No 1 ODI side, but their on-field leader is content to accept the odds are against an away win.
That was also the case in the Test series, which England turned around in dramatic fashion after losing the opener to win 2-1.
“It’s tough to win out here and that is the challenge we have got on our hands,” he said. “It’s going to be a hell of a challenge, a bit like the Test series in one way. We have to do something that no English side has done for a long time.
“Clearly, we are the underdogs, but if you look through our side we have got a lot of firepower and a lot of world-class players.
“For us to win the series those world-class players and everyone in our squad is going to have to play out of our skin.”
This match is the first under new limited-overs coach Ashley Giles, who was appointed at the end of last year to ease the workload on team director Andy Flower.
Giles admits the breakdown in relations between England and Kevin Pietersen “got out of hand” but is confident the issue is at an end after the batsman signed a full central contract.
Pietersen’s turbulent relationship with the England and Wales Cricket Board soured dramatically last year, with the player’s retirement from limited-overs cricket beginning a chain of events that saw him removed from the national team following an explosive press conference at Headingley and later an admission of “provocative” messages sent to opponents in the South Africa side.
Some common ground was found in time for him to play a full part in England’s Test series win in India before Christmas, albeit on a limited four-month deal.
Both parties have agreed to upgrade that to a full central contract, with Pietersen joining 10 other senior players on terms that run until September 30.
Giles was on the periphery as a selector during the row, but is glad the chapter has now come to an end.
“He is fully signed up, he has signed his central contract and that is good news,” said the Ashes-winning spinner. “The stuff with KP is history. It got out of hand, but now he is back on board and playing as well as ever.
“It’s great news. Whatever happened in 2012, we’re moving into a new year now. It’s great for me to have him here (in India). His experience in this side in this part of the world is invaluable.”
Giles says he will not be afraid to apply a firm hand in the dressing room.
“We are all different, but I will have the same principles as Andy Flower and if I think someone is out of line in the team I will tell them because the group comes first,” he said.
“I’ve spoken already to Andy, but I wouldn’t want to speak to him every day. I’ve got to be my own man and my own coach, but Andy has great experience at this job and he’s very good at it.
“It is good for me to pick his brains and there are other experienced guys here in a big management team who I can take advice from.”