England's captain Cook faces ultimate challenge
LONDON: Alastair Cook faces his biggest ever challenge as England captain when he leads his young team into this year's home Ashes series against Australia.
His country's highest test run-scorer, back in the form which made him one of the world's leading opening batsmen, Cook must try to feed on the positive vibes fuelled by a gripping contest against New Zealand in all forms of the game.
With a new-look team, short on experience but long on aggression and confidence, he takes on Michael Clarke's ruthless Australia with the simple objective of winning back the famous urn.
Trevor Bayliss is the England coach charged with master-minding his native country's downfall and Cook will need to gel quickly with the 52-year-old Australian to work out how to bring down Darren Lehmann's ultra-efficient side.
At least Cook the batsman is back.
After nearly two years without an international century he made two in two tests against West Indies and New Zealand before moving past his friend and mentor Graham Gooch as England's leading run-scorer in tests last month.
But Cook has personal baggage to deal with as well as leading an inexperienced team which includes only four other players with experience of Ashes success.
He has struggled in the last two series against Australia, scoring only 523 runs in 10 matches.
Not terrible statistics but without a century and averaging just over 26, a far cry from his overall test record which includes 27 hundreds at an average of nearly 47.
For inspiration, he should think back to his finest hour on the 2010-11 Ashes tour when he scored an astonishing 766 runs in seven innings as England won a series in Australia for the first time in 24 years.
However, Cook's captaincy will come under intense scrutiny.
A reputation as a conservative leader will be hard to dispel but he must be brave and innovative to probe the weaknesses of an ageing Australian side.
Cook was outwitted by Brendon McCullum in the recent test series against New Zealand which ended 1-1, though he can take inspiration from England one-day captain Eoin Morgan whose aggressive tactics brought about a thrilling 3-2 series win over the World Cup runners-up.
Morgan was captain cool -- cute and challenging.
If Cook can be skipper serene, sharp and streetwise, the Ashes could be reclaimed and his reputation as a fine leader as well as a master batsman will be assured.