Cow Corner

England’s prosperous Ashes cycle ends, but now Cook has big opportunity

Cow Corner

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The last time Australia won an Ashes series was on January 5, 2007, almost seven years ago. It has been an auspicious period for a group of exceptional England players.

Having won three successive Ashes series and comprehensively defeated Australia on their home soil in 2010/11, the capitulation in this series has been alarming and deeply humbling for Andy Flower's men.

Some of the same cricketers who were humiliated last time Down Under have excelled. Mitchell Johnson has found the most glorious redemption; Michael Clarke has led a quite stunning resurgence.

Ashes cycles ensure that no team ever has unchecked success for too long without a wounded team eventually finding a response, and it is often dramatic, convincing and jolting. England's latest stint has come to a shuddering halt, of that there is no doubt.

As a visibly emotional Alastair Cook admitted after losing the precious urn, it is now England who are "hurting". What matters now is how his men use that hurt to drive them forwards.

But will it be the same individuals tasked with arresting the slump in Melbourne and Sydney? Will Flower and Cook be ruthless and brave in their team selections where in the past they have been able to rely on continuity and trust?

England have held the Ashes for 1,577 days since they responded to a chastening whitewash to secure their return on August 23, 2009. In the wider context of the game's history, it will go down as a very notable period.

[Australia down England in Perth to regain the Ashes]

[View from Down Under: Torn apart, limb by limb]

[Cook: We were outplayed and we are very hurt]

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But as certain players' careers begin to inevitably wind down, others come to the forefront. Ben Stokes displayed prodigious talent and impressive application in scoring 120 on a fourth-innings pitch covered with deep cracks and against a fired-up, confident attack.

Indeed, Stokes produced the second highest score by an England number six in the fourth innings of an Ashes contest. This from a 22-year-old all-rounder who had, by some considerable margin, been England's quickest and most promising bowler earlier in the match.

Amid all the frustration and despondency surrounding English cricket at this moment, it should not be ignored that Stokes is the second youngest player to score a 100 at number six since the great Denis Compton in 1938.

England's first three-figure score of the series was also only the third by an Englishman in Perth since 1987 - Graham Thorpe and Cook the other two. But what shone through was the desire and determination at the heart of his innings.

The number six position has been a huge problem for England since Ian Bell scored the last century from a player in that slot 34 Tests ago against Sri Lanka in 2011. At least there has been one positive to take for the beleaguered tourists.

But while England's pitiful form may well continue in this dismal series, Cook and Flower now have an opportunity: the same players can be allowed to turn out the same indifferent performances, or new prospects can be introduced to begin their careers on the most magnificent of stages.

The Boxing Day Test at the MCG is as historic and grand an occasion as there is on the cricketing calendar - so what tremendous value it could potentially be for a young England player to come in and have the chance of making his mark.

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A 22-year-old from Durham has already stamped his authority on an otherwise pathetic series for the tourists, so 24-year-old Gary Ballance will have taken great confidence and hope from watching his team-mate rise to the challenge. If the hapless efforts from England's more established batsmen do not demand that he be given his head now, then when?

Boyd Rankin and Steven Finn have far from impressed with the ball so far on this tour, but then England's established bowlers have hardly given Australia anything to worry about either. What do Flower and Cook have to lose from this position? What is stopping Geoff Miller and the England selectors from being a touch more adventurous going forward?

As one Ashes cycle comes to an end, England's period of excellence can be recognised for what it was - a fine group of talented and spirited cricketers peaking together at the same time to deliver success over a previously dominant Australia.

Just as Australia have a chance now to back up this success in 18 months' time under the superb leadership of coach Darren Lehmann and Clarke, Cook has an opportunity to develop and nurture his own group of hungry, motivated players. This is, after all, largely the core group that was assembled under the captaincy of Andrew Strauss.

Cook inherited a group of established, confident cricketers, but his defining challenge as an England captain and leader will be to generate a unity and spirit in developing new individuals similar to that which Lehmann and Clarke have so admirably garnered.

Flower's job, and his future has been shrouded in doubt for some 12 months now with Ashley Giles waiting in the wings, will be to assess where the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Swann and Matt Prior stand in terms of their desire to respond to shifting sands. This does not need to be the end for the established stars who have failed so startlingly in this series, but Flower needs to gauge if the fire is still in the belly.

With every crushing defeat comes another series on the horizon and England must shift their focus now without indulging in self-pity or regret. The analysis must be brutally honest and the decisions must be brave.

If Stokes's courageous and inspired innings demonstrated anything it was that behind this group of seasoned, successful stars stand young cricketers just waiting for their opportunity to get at the opposition and make their own history.

Dan Quarrell - @Dan_Eurosport

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