ALASTAIR COOK has admitted he is facing the toughest test of his captaincy as England look to bounce back from 2-0 down in the Ashes.
The England opener, who was due to make his 100th appearance in the third Test at Perth starting today, conceded this is the most exacting examination of his leadership career.
England looked a shadow of themselves under Cook during a one-sided start to the series Down Under.
They lost the first Test in Brisbane by 381 runs and the second in Adelaide by 218 runs.
It was only a year ago that Cook cemented his status in charge by leading England to a 2-1 comeback win in India – their first success on Indian soil since 1984-85.
But as he prepared to celebrate his 100th cap along with Australia captain Michael Clarke, thereby throwing up one of the more curious doubles in Ashes history, Cook acknowledged that the game at the WACA was his biggest challenge.
“I think that’s fair,” said Cook, who, at 28 years and 353 days, was due to become the youngest to play 100 Test matches.
“What happened in India was a big challenge but your next challenge is always the toughest and, after what’s happened in the series so far, I’d say that was so.”
Cook went into today’s game looking to deliver on two counts.
On the one hand, he was desperate to inspire his side to a win that would breathe fresh life into the series and to win the tactical battle with Clarke.
On the other, he was acutely aware of the need to start scoring some runs; Cook managed just four at Adelaide, where he was twice dismissed by pace bowler Mitchell Johnson.
Cook had only three days to prepare himself and his team after the annihilation at Adelaide but he said raising spirits had not been an issue.
“I don’t think it is a problem lifting the players,” said Cook yesterday.
“The hunger and desire that has been questioned has always been there in this side and we have another chance to show it this week.
“We have to make sure we’re very clear individually of our plans both with bat and ball and, as a team, how we want to operate in this game”
Cook is confident that he can rise to the challenge of his 100th Test; he was set to become the 11th Englishman to reach that milestone.
Although proud of the landmark, he knows it is only a sub-plot with the Ashes at stake. “It is a huge honour for me to be joining the 100 club and one I never thought I’d get when I started off playing for Essex as a youngster,” he said.
“It is a special day and it will make it an even more special week if we can produce the performance we know we’re capable of.”
England’s most obvious problem during the first two Tests was an inability to cope with Johnson’s pace.
The left-armer took 17 wickets at 12.70 and was hoping to improve on those figures on his home ground at Perth, a venue where England have won only one of 12 Tests.
“I think our shot selection against him at certain times in this series has been quite poor and that’s why he has had a lot of success,” said Cook.
“But it is very dangerous to start concentrating on one of their bowlers.
“They have a very good attack and they have put us under pressure so far in this series.”
A few days short of his 29th birthday, Cook should be around for a good while yet.
He could even emulate Sachin Tendulkar’s achievement in playing 200 Tests but he has no idea for how long he might play.
“Who knows?” said Cook. “I have just got to cherish every one I play.
“I am very privileged to get 100 and I’d love to play a fair few more.
“But it would be wrong just to assume anything in this game. It is a tough game but, if people still want me to play, I’ll play for as long as I can.”
Cook also batted off suggestions from England vice-captain Matt Prior that he will end up becoming England’s “greatest” cricketer.
“I don’t think I’ll ever put myself in that bracket,” said Cook.
“It was nice of Matty to say that but I think he was just being nice to me as captain.
“There are some great players to have played for England.”