When Alistair Cook allowed himself the guilty pleasure of looking ahead to his 100th test match for England he probably envisioned a bat raised in acknowledgment of raucous applause form a partisan crowd, basking in the England captains latest record setting century. It’s all but certain that he wouldn’t have imagined even in his worst nightmare that it would transpire like it did this past week, suffering another pasting at the hands of an aggressive and ruthless Australian team which resulted in him handing over the Ashes to the old enemy.
If that sounds bad enough and you think the test couldn’t have gone any worse for the beleaguered England captain then you’d be wrong; Cook also registered his first test match golden duck during the desperate affair. When you compare Cook’s 100th test to other contemporary cricketers you can’t help but feel sorry for the man. Alec Stewart had the good fortune to score a century during his centenary match, while Cook’s opposite number during this series Michael Clarke wrestled the urn from Cook’s grasp after seven years of Australian pain this week. That both Cook and Clarke reached 100 test matches in the same game was somewhat of a coincidence, different as their paths to the landmark may have been, yet while Clarke was able to celebrate the achievement with champagne and a few lagers Cook wore a haunted look in his post-match press conference.
No matter what happens from here Cook will be remembered as one of England’s finest cricketers. He could retire tomorrow with the most centuries ever by an England test batsman and an average north of 47 – a fine figure for an opening batsman not to mention one who has to contend with the typical swing and seam associated with English conditions. Cook has also led England to a historic series win in India, something not achieved for two decades, as well as a 3-0 Ashes triumph this past summer that could well have been four – love if not for the failing light at the Oval in August.
Yet despite all this Cook is under enormous pressure heading into the final two matches of this series in Melbourne and Sydney. A 5-0 whitewash would make Cook’s position as good as untenable, much as Andrew Flintoff’s was in 2006/7 when his touring party failed to stop a rampant Australia team run the table and avenge the 2005 defeat. Flintoff compounded his poor captaincy record by taking an ill-advised trip on a pedalo during the following springs World Cup in the Caribbean, an act Cook is extremely unlikely to follow, but the real damage to his reputation was done during those five infamous tests down under. Flintoff is the only post-war England captain to suffer the humiliation of an Ashes whitewash and he never led his country in a test match again; should Cook fail to rally the troops and prevent a repeat over the coming weks he will likely lose the job himself.