The Ashes: Alastair Cook faces toughest test of his character

Stoic captain will be the target for Australia as they attempt to undermine the tourists and claw back the urn

The first was Ivo Bligh. There have been 12 others. Two became knights of the realm, two killed themselves, at least one drank himself to death, another caused a diplomatic incident, one died a hero trying to save his father at sea, two others have been MCC presidents and are thankfully still with us.

It is quite impossible to tell what might be in store for Alastair Cook if and when he becomes the next England captain to win the Ashes in Australia. Cook is leading a team who are outstanding favourites to beat the oldest rival for the fourth successive time, a sequence not achieved since Victoria was on the throne and the terracotta urn which is the object of all the fuss was still standing on Bligh's mantelpiece rather than in the Lord's museum.

Like all his predecessors, Cook can expect to be the opposition's main target. Undermine the pommie captain, goes the understandable thinking, and you are halfway to bagging the Bligh family ornament. The men who led the team in losing causes will have known all about that.

Cook is central to England's aspirations. As both helmsman and opening batsman he will lay down the template. England have made a habit of late of sending captains who are also first in the line of Australian fire.

Five of the last nine captains before this have opened the batting: Mike Brearley, Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart (belatedly, in the last two Tests) and Andrew Strauss. Of those, Brearley and Strauss came home with the prize. Most had their moments with the bat, though Gooch, who averaged 53 in 1990-91, might have settled for Brearley's average of 16 in 1978-79 if it meant the team winning.

It is improbable bordering on impossible that Cook can have the sort of series he had three years ago when England achieved one of their most compelling triumphs. He scored 766 runs at an average of 127.67 with three hundreds. Only Wally Hammond among England batsmen, with his 905 runs in 1928‑29, has scored more in a series in Australia.

Cook then was a model of unfussy concentration and diligence. He played absolutely to his strengths and kept his weaknesses under lock and key. There was nothing showy about him, there was little drama and if you wanted the spectacular then you would be wasting your time. But you knew, you simply knew that if you showed up at the cricket in 2010‑11, Cook would be batting and England would be winning.

He said at the time that he would never see its like again. He sets the highest standards for himself in the most pristine fashion but he is also a realist and a pragmatist in the way of solid men's achievements in all walks of life and he senses instinctively what is possible.

Doubtless in the seven weeks that the series lasts from its start in Brisbane on 21 November, Cook would settle for something in between his incredible exploits on the last tour and his three other series against these opponents.

His figures from those are modest. In 2006-07 when he was still learning the trade he scored 276 runs at 27.60; in 2009 when he was the undisputed choice he made 222 at 24.67; perhaps most pertinently, last summer, in his first Ashes series as captain, he accrued 277 at 27.70.

For the first time since he took over from Strauss it was possible to suggest that the natural tribulations of office were affecting his form at the crease. Some of the old vulnerabilities returned, the tendency to parry in the area where fourth or fifth stump might be, the urge to move across the crease. Most worrying of all, was it possible to detect the occasional loss of concentration, important for all batsmen but essential in Cook's modus operandi?

Australia will throw everything they have at him and more if they can find it. Cook is better equipped than most to resist. He possesses a solidity of character and an equanimity of mind which are to be envied.

His captaincy is not to all tastes. Quite often he does not seem to be doing much and almost as frequently he can seem to be reacting to events rather than shaping them. To which it can be said that so far his teams have won in India, drawn in New Zealand and defeated New Zealand and Australia at home. He is actually fascinating to watch and doing nothing as all captains know is often wiser than doing something, or anything.

It was perhaps a surprise that a successful team led by as genuinely a good a bloke as Cook should have attracted the indifference and criticism that England did last summer. They were hard-nosed, which they have to be, they were never afraid to retrench which is also crucial but sometimes, not always, they gave the impression that were not much enjoying it all.

Cook seemed to be in relaxed early tour mode in Perth yesterday when he candidly let it be known that Tim Bresnan may well be fit in time for the opening Test. Bresnan is not officially part of the touring squad because he had not recovered sufficiently from his stress fracture of the back to be selected. However, he is Cook's kind of cricketer – solid, unfussy, skilful – and that is why he was taken along. Cook made it clear that Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad would fill the first two spots for fast bowlers. This was heartening because England have sometimes been ridiculously equivocal about who's playing and who's not.

He gave a clue about how he and the coach, Andy Flower, are thinking at this early stage. Tall is the key as witnessed by the choice of the Irish giant, Boyd Rankin. "He's a big, tall lump," Cook said. "He can get the ball down pretty close to 90mph. You can see from the selection of the squad we've picked we think pace and bounce will be quite crucial on Australian wickets."

As part of their typically meticulous preparation, England have enlisted as net bowlers Tymal Mills of Essex and Harry Gurney of Nottinghamshire. They are not part of the party or especially close to being so but they could be an essential component. They are both fast and left-handed, significant when Australia will almost certainly bring back Mitchell Johnson and may also play Mitchell Starc.

England are rightly confident and all things are possible for Cook. The above mentioned predecessors were respectively Sir Pelham Warner, Sir Len Hutton, Arthur Shrewsbury, Andy Stoddart, Percy Chapman, Douglas Jardine, Johnny Douglas, Mike Brearley and Mike Gatting, who is this year's MCC president.

2010-11: The remarkable tour

First Test, 25-29 Nov, Brisbane Match drawn: Records and rain fell. Pete Siddle reduced England from 197-4 to 197-7 with a 26th birthday hat-trick. Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin rescued Australia with a Gabba-high 307-run sixth-wicket partnership. But Andrew Strauss (110), Alastair Cook (235 not out) and Jonathan Trott (136 not out) topped it.

Second Test, 3-7 Dec, Adelaide England won by innings and 71 runs: Australia lost Simon Katich was run out without facing and captain Ricky Ponting went first-ball. Cook prospered and Pietersen hit a Test high 227 in 620-5 dec. Graeme Swann's 10th five-wicket haul gave England a 100th Test win over Australia.

Third Test, 16-20 Dec, Perth Australia won by 267 runs: England's only blip. They managed only 187 and 123. Mitchell Johnson was brought in by Australia to stop England, but it was Ryan Harris who cut them down with figures of 6-47.

Fourth Test, 26-30 Dec, Melbourne England won by innings and 157 runs: The visitors retained the Ashes as Australia made only 98 in their first innings, their lowest MCG total. England made 513 – Trott 168 not out – despite Peter Siddle taking 6-75.

Fifth Test, 3-7 Jan, Sydney England won by an innings and 83 runs: Australia's poor batting continued. Cook made 189 in England's 644 and was man-of-the-series for his 766 runs as England won their first Ashes down under since 1986/87.

Sam Petherick

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