Alastair Cook has endured his ‘lowest moment’, and must now ensure England sink no further after limply losing the Ashes at the WACA.
The spectre of England’s 2006/07 whitewash tour will loom over Christmas as Cook and coach Andy Flower ponder how to stop the rot down under.
Cook, powerless to do so in his 100th Test, was a mere foot-soldier opening batsman for that dysfunctional campaign under the short-lived captaincy of Andrew Flintoff.
England were able to delay the inevitable on the final day of the third Test this time, thanks to a memorable maiden international century from Ben Stokes (120), but were eventually bowled out for 353 in early afternoon to concede an unassailable 3-0 lead to Australia.
The hosts are therefore in possession of the urn for the first time since that 5-0 drubbing seven winters ago, having again thoroughly outplayed England to win so far by 381, 218 and now just the small matter of 150 runs.
For Cook, the whole miserable experience is a shock to the system – after England beat Australia 3-0 at home only four months ago.
“It hurts like hell when you come into a contest and end up being second best,” he said.
“As a sportsman, to admit that is quite hard.”
Cook will have to contend with various calls for his demotion, Flower’s resignation and/or the dropping of clutch of senior players some believe are nearing the end of their sell-by date before England try to limit the damage in Melbourne’s Boxing Day Test.
In the first instance, though, he merely had to account for the reasons behind England’s defeats.
“We haven’t done ourselves justice in those three games. People haven’t performed as well as they could have done,” he said.
“The simple fact of the matter is we haven’t had enough players in form with either bat or ball.
“You can’t put it any more honestly than that.”
The consequence of seven home hundreds already, to Stokes’ alone for England, and 23 wickets in three matches for Mitchell Johnson is – as Cook monosyllabically agreed at his post-match press conference – his lowest point in international cricket.
“The dressing room is hurting ... it’s a tough place to be,” he added.
“We’ve had plenty of success, and this is the other end of it. It’s not pleasant.”
Stokes’ innings was a breath of fresh air, incongruous to all that surrounded him as Johnson (four for 78) yet again administered the hammer blows.
Cook is equivocal about the suggestion his team, largely of 30-somethings, might be on the wane.
“The last three results suggest that,” he said.
“You deal in facts, and we lost three games. (But) you only have to look at the Australian side – there are a few guys the back end of 30 who are delivering success for them.”
He is insistent that the primary responsibility is his – as captain, and an opening batsman who has made 155 runs in six innings.
“I’ll never feel let down by my lads,” he said.
“Whether I could have done more, of course, that’s the first place you look when you lose.
“As a captain, the buck stops with you.
“Am I managing the players right; am I doing the right things out in the middle?
“We have to have some honest chats, like we always do.”
Michael Clarke hailed Australia’s Ashes victory as a special achievement to compare with their whitewash of England in 2006/07.
Clarke, a young middle-order batsman seven winters ago, marked his own 100th Test by leading his team to a famous victory and unassailable 3-0 lead, with two to play.
Echoing the thoughts already expressed by his wicketkeeping colleague at the safe re-deliverance of the urn, he said: “Today, as Brad Haddin said, we brought it home.
“To get the Ashes back is so special, because of the work these guys have put in.”
Asked if this is therefore the proudest moment of his outstanding career, he said: “It’s as big, there’s no doubt about it.
“I certainly don’t want to disrespect 2006/07 – that was a very special series at a very different time in my career.
“I was a lot younger ... a little bit older, a little bit greyer, this is certainly as special.”
It is too, of course, for a generation of Australians who have previously had to get used to losing to England. “I don’t think you’ll find one bloke in that dressing room who won’t say that this is the pinnacle – playing Test cricket against England and winning the Ashes,” Clarke added.
“That’s always been the pinnacle for Australian cricketers.”
Clarke spared a thought too for Cook. The England captain is under unaccustomed scrutiny after failing to consolidate the superiority which saw his team beat Australia 3-0 themselves on home soil only four months ago.
Back then, it was Clarke who had to come up with a panoply of explanations in defeat.
“I’ve read a bit of the stuff in the media back in the UK, and I know what Alastair feels like at the moment.
“It’s not that long ago I sat in the same position. I think they’re a very strong team, and the Australian players deserve a lot of credit for the way we’ve performed in this series.
“Alastair Cook is a fantastic leader. To play 100 Test matches, and have the record he has, I think he deserves a lot of recognition.”
Clarke knows from personal experience that success at the highest level is hard-earned.
“Test cricket is extremely tough, and I know what it feels like to sit on the other side and not get the result you want,” he said.
“But that doesn’t mean you haven’t got the best players there; it doesn’t mean you haven’t got the best captain there.
“I believe Alastair Cook is a wonderful player and a very good captain – and I certainly don’t believe he deserves the criticism I’ve read in the last few days. Nor do the England team.
“They outplayed us (a few) months ago, in the UK.”