Australia v England, 3rd Test, Perth, 2nd day December 14, 2013

Cook proves his worth as a leader

Forcing heart and nerve and sinew, Alastair Cook showed a precious ability to fight even when hope was fading, providing an example of the character and courage required in his team

England may well relinquish the Ashes in the next couple of days but they will, metaphorically at least, have to be prised from Alastair Cook's grasp.

He failed in the end, but Cook produced a gallant performance on the second day in Perth. His struggle was obvious: like a runner with a limp or a boat with a leak, he was never secure and often painfully uncomfortable. He was battling not just the heat - at one stage a spectator fried an egg on the top of an advertising hoarding - but a disciplined bowling attack and, most of all, his own technique.

Like most batsmen, when Cook is in form, the runs flow and batting appears a simple business. But here, unsure where his off stump was and struggling with his balance, it felt as if each run had to be carved out of granite.

Yet, through grim determination and a surfeit of obduracy, he recorded his highest Test score since May and his highest score in eight successive Ashes Tests. When he couldn't run he walked; when he couldn't walk he crawled. It was an innings as low in style and as high in substance as Cook has played for some time.

Those watching the highlights - and from a batting perspective there really weren't many - may see only a somewhat loose cut to end his innings. Cook will spend much of the night - perhaps much of the next few weeks and months - regretting the thick, top edge that ended his resistance. It wasn't beautiful and it was the second time this series he has fallen in such fashion.

But what the highlights will not convey is the struggle that led up to the false stroke. They will not convey the three-and-a-half hours of fight that preceded it, the wonderfully consistent bowling that induced the false shot, the burden of a situation in which Cook knew that his team were desperately in need of a performance to sustain any hope in this series and that, sans Jonathan Trott, they are horribly overly reliant upon a few senior players for their scores. Somehow, over recent weeks, England seem to have gained the tail of a Diplodocus.

There will be those who suggest that Ashes defeat should spell the end of Cook's time as captain. Those, presumably, who have forgotten Cook's achievement in reintegrating Kevin Pietersen into his side and leading them to success in India little more than a year ago. Those who when pressed can't think of a better option as captain.

But you might equally argue that Cook proved his worth as a leader in this innings. That he forced heart and nerve and sinew to serve long after they had gone. That he showed a precious ability to fight even when hope was fading. That, with men wilting around him and worn out tools, he provided an example of the character and courage required in his team. Anyone can lead a winning side. It takes courage to lead a struggling one.

Whether Cook has the same durability as captain as he does as a batsman remains to be seen. But here, despite being beaten more often than a punch bag in a boxer's gym, he survived through a mixture of grit and that phlegmatic attitude that enables him to shrug off setbacks that would make others lose their composure. It was not, perhaps, quite as dramatic as Brian Close taking blow after blow from the West Indies fast bowlers on his body, but there was an inherent bravery on display in the face of an unequal battle, nevertheless.

It has been stated before that there is something of the cockroach in Cook's batting and the suspicion remains that, the morning after a nuclear holocaust, Cook would be there, quietly marking his guard and waiting for the bowler, as the first survivors peeked around their curtains.

Certainly he shrugged off several near-misses here. He was drawn into a push outside off stump before he had scored - a result of his current insecurity around off stump - he was dropped on 3 - a desperately tough chance, but the result of playing across his front pad having fallen to the off side - and was later lured into an attempted hook off Mitchell Johnson that he was lucky to miss.

It is sometimes overlooked, but Cook is often the man who provides the foundations upon which others build more eye-catching innings of their own. So it was Cook who was at the other end when Pietersen played that remarkable innings in Mumbai, Cook who laid the platform ahead of Pietersen's remarkable innings in Colombo and Cook who contributed the century in Ahmedabad that showed his team how to prosper in such conditions. While he is at the crease England always have hope.

But once he departed, England's resistance creaked. Pietersen soon followed, having played with uncharacteristic restraint, taking 15 balls to get off the mark - a record for Pietersen in Tests - and 44 balls to hit his first boundary. Again, the shot that brought his departure will not flatter him taken out of context, but Pietersen showed no lack of fight or application. Like his long-serving colleagues - the likes of Trott, Cook, Graeme Swann and James Anderson - Pietersen looks jaded and weary.

But the effort and passion shouldn't be questioned when a lack of fight from England has been most galling at times this series. On this occasion, they fought and came second. There's no disgrace in that.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo