Alastair Cook answered his many critics, and put England in an advantageous early position, as he neared a long-overdue Test century at the Ageas Bowl.

Cook (82no) had luck on his side in the third Investec Test in his and Sam Robson's first half-century opening stand together, at the eighth attempt, and he then added another 131 as he and Gary Ballance (72no) batted through the afternoon to reach 186 for one.

The England captain, under intense pressure as he seeks a first Test century in 28 innings and his team try to arrest a run of seven defeats in nine matches, might easily have gone cheaply again after winning the toss on a bright but cloudy morning.

He survived on 15 when he poked out at a Pankaj Singh delivery from round the wicket and should have become the debutant's maiden Test victim only for Ravindra Jadeja to put down a straightforward chance at third slip.

Cook often appeared tentative, edging the first ball of the match from Bhuvneshwar Kumar short of second slip and also beaten on the outside edge by Mohammed Shami before his scare against first-change Pankaj.

He 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 his last hundred, when he made 130 against New Zealand at Headingley 14 months ago.

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 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.