|Alastair Cook at the MCG, on Tuesday. (Getty Images)
Melbourne: The previous Captain Cook’s visit to Australia was on a voyage of discovery over 240 years ago, but whatever privations suffered by him and his 18th-century explorers the current captain Cook is experiencing their modern equivalent as he seeks to fashion a winning team from the wreckage of this tour.
In three swift and brutal ambushes, Michael Clarke’s Australia have wrenched the Ashes off him that he won during the summer.
In time, Alastair Cook will break all England batting records in Test cricket but they will be forever tainted by the fact that he lost the urn after holding it for just 19 weeks.
The speed of defeat, plus the amount of casualties and collateral damage, has been traumatic and caused him to question his leadership, a natural reaction when senior players are not performing. The introspection is to be expected. Cook’s career trajectory has been mostly heavenwards but this Ashes tour has so far been a crushing setback.
“I certainly have to look at myself,” Cook said. “As captain, you are responsible for a lot of things. I need to improve as a leader. This is when we need our people to stand up. I have to stand up and look how I can make a big difference with the England team.”
Big runs are what he and his team have lacked and, Ben Stokes’s brilliant century aside, they have not looked like making them in the quantities required, usually in the first innings, to win Test matches in Australia.
The shortfall, especially compared to Australia’s massive totals, has proved decisive and with two Tests remaining, including the daunting Boxing Day Test at the MCG where a world-record crowd of 100,000 could gather on the opening day, they have nothing to play for but pride.
Renaissance has sprouted from less and with Graeme Swann now departed along with Jonathan Trott, and with Matt Prior almost certain to be dropped for Jonny Bairstow, the old engine room Cook inherited from Andrew Strauss has gone, a prospect both frightening and exhilarating.
“It’s exciting because the England team will be moving in a different direction,” Cook said. “It does give the opportunity for younger players to grab their chances. When any team doesn’t win, you are always looking for new guys to push out the established guys. We’ve had a fairly stable run with excellent results. The team stays the same because people are performing. When you lose and don’t perform, that’s when questions are asked.”
Somehow, Cook and his team need to raise their game to levels only glimpsed fleetingly on this tour. Otherwise the dreaded whitewash and all the gnashing of teeth and inquiries that entails will become a gruesome reality.
“We must get back to the standards we know we can play at,” said Cook in a pre-Christmas rallying cry. “That’s what has been disappointing on this tour. We haven’t played the cricket we know we are capable of. There are guys who have played a lot of cricket and they must now stand up.”
The new players likely to come in are not rookies. Monty Panesar will play his 50th Test. For Bairstow it will be his 13th if, as expected, he takes the gloves. They could even be joined by a debutant, Boyd Rankin, if Stuart Broad does not overcome a bruised right foot, though the pace attack from Perth will probably persist.
Before Swann, Panesar was England’s leading spinner. He has not been bowling as well as he did in those early years, now having a front side that collapses too quickly on delivery. But he is no naif with ball in hand even if he gives a passable impression of one at other times.
On Monday, Panesar said he felt he had squandered any chance of playing for England again last summer, a troubled period in which he was arrested and cautioned for urinating on bouncers outside a Brighton nightclub.
Neither Panesar nor Bairstow, who is becoming an increasingly intense cricketer, is likely to provide the new spark that reinvigorates jaded dressing rooms.
Instead, that will fall to Stokes, whose unflinching stare, staunch bat and unflagging bowling, make him the kind of linchpin always likely to inspire others. As Swann put it the other day, this time without ambiguity: “You can build a team around someone like him”.
Australia are likely to be unchanged in team as well as attitude, as talk of keeping their foot on England’s throat swirls around Melbourne’s not-so-polite salons. Until this Ashes win, all but Michael Clarke had only ever experienced humility against England, so the motivation to assuage that with a 5-0 whitewash is extreme.
Such desire could find its apotheosis at the MCG if the weather is as good as is being forecast on Boxing Day. If Australia bat first and start doing what they have done to England all series, by posting big totals, the noise in this giant high-sided colosseum will be so intense as to induce the fight or flight response in those of a nervous disposition.