Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney January 1, 2014

Cook faces second big challenge

Just over a year ago, with the dressing room torn apart by bickering and the No. 1 ranking wrestled away by South Africa, Alastair Cook assumed the captaincy of the England Test side.

It was a tough time to take charge. The division between Kevin Pietersen and some of his colleagues was at its widest and England faced a daunting tour of India. By the time they lost the first Test of that series, it looked as if Cook may have inherited an impossible task.

But Cook found a way. At first he instigated a solution to the Pietersen issue. Then, through the example of his second-innings century in Ahmedabad, he showed his team how to score runs in India. He led from the front. Ten months into the role, England were unbeaten in a series, had reached the final of the ICC Champions Trophy and had retained the Ashes and won in India.

Now, however, Cook's leadership is under scrutiny. England have not only been beaten in Australia, but there is a perception that Cook is the sort of captain who follows the game. The sort of captain who is reactive rather than proactive. The sort of captain who operates by numbers rather than intuition.

But leadership comes in different forms. Cook may never be a great orator - David Bowie went through a period of cutting up words at random in magazines and forming song lyrics from them and sometimes it seems Cook takes the same approach with his press conferences - and he may never have the tactical imagination of Mike Brearley, but he is respected by his team, he is the youngest man in history to score 8,000 Test runs and, having taken on the job with very little experience, he is learning his trade in public.

He admits he has much to learn. But, as he takes his team into the final Test of an Ashes series trying to avoid a whitewash, he feels he is improving and that some of the criticism is based purely on the results.

"I do think I'm a better captain now because I've done the job for longer," Cook said. "You only really learn on this job no matter how many times you talk about it to people outside the game. The only way you really learn is when you're out there.

"You get flak when you lose games of cricket whatever you do and we've lost four in a row. You're going to get flak for that. Again, when you're winning in India that flak doesn't come and that is the nature of the thing.

"I do need to continually look to improve, without a doubt. It would be very wrong of me not to do so. There's never a fine art to captaincy; there are always people outside with different ideas as to what we should be doing. But Michael Clarke was getting a lot of stick when Australia were losing 4-0 in India, with people saying he wasn't a good captain, and suddenly he's winning games of cricket and he's the world's best captain. So that's the world we live in and we appreciate that."

Leading England over the next couple of years is likely to prove demanding. Cook accepts that an era is ending for the team that took England to the top of the world ratings and suggested as many as three new caps could be given for the Sydney Test. With such change to the team, he feels the importance and senior players and the current management structure become even more acute.

"I think it is the end of an era. If you go back eight or nine months, the England team picked itself and everyone was very solid in terms of results. What's happened over the last few months is that we know we can't solely rely on the 11 or 12 guys we picked constantly. But that gives opportunities to different faces and it's quite exciting to see whether those players can grab their chance.

"There's still a lot of cricket left in some of the more experienced guys. You only have to look at two players who have played very well for Australia here in Chris Rogers and Brad Haddin. They're delivering the goods at 36 years old. So experience can still be a good thing.

"We know what a good player Matt Prior has been over 75 Tests. He's had a lean year and he's the first to hold his hand up about that. His keeping has been pretty good for most of that time but we need him to be scoring runs too. He's nowhere near the end of his career. He's got to go back and prove that he's the best wicketkeeper batsman in the country if he wants his place back.

There was strong support too for Andy Flower, the coach who must help him reach fulfillment as a captain.

"He is a very good coach. I know the defeat has happened in a bad way here, but we are certainly evolving as a side and a lot of players are coming in. We do need strong leadership at this time. Andy is a strong man and a good leader."

If Cook is to prove an equally good leader, he can begin by rediscovering his batting form. A half-century in Melbourne - probably his most fluent innings of the series - hinted of a return to brighter times, but Cook's primary role in the side will always be as a batsman and his leadership will immediately appear more effective if he can return to the prolific form that played such a role in England's success in India

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo