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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Murray on December 13, 2013, 1:43 GMT

    As an Aussie I'm actually worried. If you get behind at Perth you probably lose. Very hard place to come back We got (a bit) behind (or should have) in both matches so far this series. I hope we lose the toss ! and therefore bowl.

  • Andrew on December 13, 2013, 0:18 GMT

    @maximum6 on (December 12, 2013, 17:38 GMT) - I agree with you in that Swann is not a spent force in International cricket. I don't agree that the comment about the pitches. The reality is - Oz batsmen in Oz, spank offies. Very few Offies have ever really made much of a mark in Oz. Swann relies on good drift & a fair degree of turn, this is not always available in Oz (big stadiums hindering drift & pitches turning later in the match), whereas Lyon relies more on loop & bounce, which is an adaptation to Oz pitches. Panesar got a good haul in 06/07 at the WACA - but I don't think he is as good a bowler as he was back then - in that he is more suited now to sub-continental pitches.

  • ian on December 12, 2013, 21:47 GMT

    I'm looking forward to this one, more than any other I can remember for a while. This is a backs-to-the-wall situation. White heat, with Australia straining every nerve & sinew to wrestle the Ashes back. Those that stand up, give as good - or better than they get - those players will show that they are the genuine article. That is something we need to find out from the individuals in this side, some of whom have question marks hovering over them. Personally, I'll be surprised if England can pull it off. The will, I'm sure is there, but this time they must absorb pressure (in boxing terms, ride the punches) not crack under it. Let's hope the catches stick! That would most certainly help. Broad, the one player who has stood up so far, needs to be inspired. And what can Jimmy get out of the WACA? I will be reassured by Bresnan's presence - it may be just the Test for a quiet man such as he. But runs, England, runs! Tons of them, please!

  • Michael on December 12, 2013, 17:38 GMT

    "Swann may be a fading force...." Please. He has just taken 26 wickets in the summer Ashes contests including 10 at Lords and 10 at Headingley v NZ. How long do our bowlers get before the sack? His last 2 games were at Brisbane-ready made for quicks and leggies-and at Adelaide which was not as in 2010/11. Give the guy a chance,please. from what I see except on idiosyncratic grounds,maybe like Perth- there is no-one in England fit to tie his shoe laces. And then only Monty...whom might strangely be appropriate in Perth.

  • des on December 12, 2013, 16:03 GMT

    Looking forward to seeing the likes of Broad and Swann bottle out of facing Johnson again. Can't wait.

  • shashwata on December 12, 2013, 16:02 GMT

    I feel it would be fair to say that hardly one man out of a hundred would place his bet on England to win this test at Perth given that it is the fastest cricket wicket in the world with oodles of bounce. Add to this Mitch's love affair with the ground, England's daunting rather haunting record here and their struggles with the bat in the last 2 matches, none of which offered a wicket as "lively" (read "deathly" for England) as this one, and it becomes clearer than daylight why the other 99 men who chuckle off (read hoot off) that one man's belief in an England win have hammered the nail on its head like an innocent lamb.

    But England don't need the belief of that one man. Nor do they need to convince the other 99 that they still have a realistic shot at the urn. It's them in that dressing room who need to believe they can turn the tide. Those eleven lads who take the field 'morrow have to believe that they can still earn an unlikely dream. That they can still earn the urn, the Ashes.

  • Cameron on December 12, 2013, 15:54 GMT

    Ben Stokes getting out English batsman should not be any gauge of his worth, even the lowly ranked Aussies can dismiss these batsman. Even Mitch for goodness sake.

  • Allan on December 12, 2013, 14:14 GMT

    @ AJ_Tiger86 Ludicrous suggestion. Captain is not just a big 'C' you put next to someone's name. He was chosen for a reason, and quite rightly. Legend player, he'll come good, perhaps not in this series.

  • Mainuddin on December 12, 2013, 13:26 GMT

    If Cook had any sense of responsibility he would've kept quiet instead of going on and on with his cliches after the 2 humiliating defeats. The MAIN reason England are in this hole is because of Cook's terrible form with the bat -- averaging just 25 in the 7 Ashes tests this year. When your opener always departs early, it's very tough for the middle order to rebuild every time. Unless Cook delivers with the bat at the WACA, he should be dropped. I don't think captains should be undroppable.

  • Chris on December 12, 2013, 13:17 GMT

    Not sure Selecting Ben Stokes on his bowling performances in the "nets" is the way to go. I'm sure Matt Prior and Carberry have had a few wickets in the "nets" before.

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