Australia v England, 3rd Test, Perth December 12, 2013

Cook faces 'biggest challenge'

Alastair Cook admitted he is facing the biggest challenge of his career as England go into the Perth Test knowing that another defeat will see the Ashes lost.

Cook, struggling for form and leading a side performing some way below their best, is playing the 100th Test of his career in Perth, but has little time to reflect on personal achievements.

Instead he has to find a way of harnessing the dormant talent in his batting line-up and selecting a team that can halt the progress of a resurgent Australia.

"The 100th Test is of little relevance now," Cook said. "In the big picture it doesn't matter. It has been a challenging few weeks and it's 'do or die' now. Yes, I think it's fair to call this my greatest challenge."

The manner of defeats in the first two Tests - humbling might prove the most apt description - and England's record in Perth - unremittingly grim - is hardly promising for England. Cook's recent record - in seven Tests against Australia since the start of July, he has averaged only 25.64 - also offers little encouragement.

But if time has taught us anything, it is that Cook should never be written off. There have been other times in his career when he has been on the ropes - not least in 2010, when Pakistan's seam bowlers reduced his confidence to rubble or when he failed in his first attempt as an ODI player - but he has always fought back. A 28-year-old with 25 Test centuries and nearly 8,000 Test runs is by definition a resilient cricketer. And any captain who can take over a dressing room as divided as England's at the end of 2012 and lead it to victory in India despite having lost the first Test, has leadership qualities in abundance.

"Our confidence has had a hit after those first two games," he admitted. "But we've made a conscious effort to look forward going into this game, not look back on what's happened. That's not going to do us any good.

"When things don't go well as a captain it's a tough place to be. But I'm still looking forward to the fight and still want to get out there, which is a good sign.

"I'm desperate to try to use all my experience and knowledge as a young leader to turn this around. I think I'm pretty good at dealing with it when things go wrong like this.

"There are always times, like after day three at Adelaide, when you don't have a particularly pleasant night. But I think I've got a good perspective of what cricket is about.

"We are desperate to put on a good performance because we haven't done well here and that hurts like hell. But it is only a game of cricket and no matter how big it feels at the time other things are more important."

There is speculation that England will, in panic, make a raft of changes. But while Cook admitted that "being sentimental" will not come into the equation, panic is not the Cook or Andy Flower way. Certainly suggestions that England might give a shock Test debut to Tymal Mills, a fast bowler with the England Performance Programme who claimed six Championship wickets in 2013, are ludicrous.

Instead, England are likely to conclude that this is a time for calm heads and experience. They are likely to replace the left-arm spin of Monty Panesar with the right-arm seam of Tim Bresnan or Boyd Rankin, with Bresnan the more likely to play. Even if Panesar did not have a slight side strain, his fielding in the Adelaide Test was a reminder of the difficulty of finding room for him in the side.

There is an outside possibility that England could also leave out Graeme Swann and leave the spin bowling to Joe Root. But in such hot conditions - and Perth is blisteringly hot - it would be a huge burden on the seamers to ask them to bowl throughout on what is expected to be a fine batting track.

Swann may be a fading force, but he remains England's safest slip fielder and a spinner of experience and character. How much cricket he has in him after this series remains to be seen. That right elbow has already undergone two operations; any need for a third will surely end a fine career.

If England do opt to play Bresnan and Swann it will mean that none of the three tall fast bowlers on the tour - Rankin, Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett - will play on the pitch expected to suit them best; a state of affairs that raises questions about the selection and coaching of the squad.

Anyone who watched county cricket last summer could have told the selectors that Tremlett had lost some of his pace; anyone who watched county cricket last summer saw Finn and Rankin bowling with more pace and control than they have done on this tour. Quite why Jonny Bairstow was selected remains puzzling, too: the management seem reluctant to trust him with bat or gloves.

One other option would have been to strengthen the batting by replacing Ben Stokes with Gary Ballance. But Stokes bowled very well in the nets on Thursday - he dismissed Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen - and Ballance was absent with the Performance squad. It is almost unheard of for a player to be selected having not trained with the squad.

But selection has not been England's real issue. They have, by and large, selected the best players; they just haven't played very well. If Cook can turn this series around, he will have achieved something quite remarkable.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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