Mike Selvey on the beleaguered captain

England's captain looked more prominent on the field without Graeme Swann and Matt Prior, and faces tough decisions about whether to ditch certain players and an attritional style of play

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: a tale of five cities. In Australia, it is once more the best of times, the celebrations of their overwhelming Ashes whitewash continuing on the steps of the Opera House in Sydney in their own Trafalgar Square moment (actually it was they who started such things in 1989 with the ticker-tape parade through Sydney following Allan Border's success in England, and the triumphalism now makes that of English victories past seem funereal). Well, they have earned it.

Nobody, however, should underestimate the importance to the future of Test cricket in Australia that comes with their win: a fourth successive loss, and it is no exaggeration that the longest and most demanding form of the game here, increasingly under threat it seems, from Australian rules football and their own Big Bash, would have foundered, interest waning.

For England, it is without question the worst of times. A team that set off with more than simply hope has been ripped apart, as if it was Napoleon and his army marching on Moscow and limping back again. With their proven record, Alastair Cook's team is in no way the worst to have left England, but it may well be the worst to return home. All sorts of things conspired against them, each of which compounded, but the bottom line is that they were outplayed to a massive degree by a team bent on revenge, who came at them with a ferocity that reached new heights as well plumbing new depths, at times.

There will, over the course of the next week, be serious consideration given to all the elements that made this such a disastrous tour. The new managing director of England cricket, Paul Downton, an inspired appointment following the retirement of Hugh Morris, will conduct a searching debrief involving management, captain, the new national selector James Whitaker, and very likely players as well.

It would be a surprise were he not to look beyond those boundaries, too. Then, in considered fashion he will take stock. It is within his remit to decide on the future of Andy Flower even though the team director, on an ECB employment contract, has repeatedly stated his intention to continue and help build a new side to try and win back the Ashes in 2015.

Thus far, though, there is no indication that there is anything but support both for Flower – who having built one side from the rubble of 51 all out in Jamaica to win three Ashes series and a success in India, as well as a World T20 title, has a great deal of credit in the bank – and for Cook, whose international future is not remotely in doubt but whose captaincy credentials will be scrutinised by Whitaker.

Cook, a dignified, honest and highly respected man, deserves the chance to kick over the traces and start afresh. Essentially, when he took over the side towards the end of 2012, Cook inherited the team that Flower and Andrew Strauss had built and one which was running out of steam. The hope was that it had one more tour in it. That group, which of course included Cook, were used to being led in a particular style.

Cook has long since held a reputation of being a strong voice within the dressing room but the idea of someone else wielding the power, even a promoted foot-soldier, is a different matter. Flower insists that this has impacted neither on Cook's capacity to lead, nor the support he has had, but there is no doubt that, whatever the outcome, he has looked considerably more prominent on the field since Graeme Swann went home and, to an extent, Matt Prior was dropped.

What is important now is that he is given the opportunity, with Flower, to build a new side to his own specification, a process that began to an extent in the final Test. Central to this are several elements. First is strategic. What type of cricket do they think they need to play? Will the attritional ways of the past four years still be sufficient or must they change the approach?

Once they decide this, then it will be Whitaker's job to identify and help bring on the players to fit into that template. Fundamental too, there will be a need to understand with absolute clarity the level of commitment of each and every player, not just in terms of whether they would like to play on into the middle distance, but also whether the intensity of playing and competing has dropped off. Strauss himself has said that one thing he realised not long before he retired was that he had achieved all he had set out to do in the game and that this in itself reduced his focus, if only slightly.

Flower could, and probably would, make it abundantly clear that there are no sinecures to be had in the new side, even those – Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Stuart Broad, and now Ben Stokes for example – who might provide a nucleus. It might even be that he insists that what, at face value, are regarded as indispensable players might have to go if he and Cook are able to do their jobs and move things forward constructively. There could be tough decisions to be made all round.

All places are up for grabs when the next team is chosen to play Sri Lanka in early June and they must not feel bound by the constraints of central contracts, another area the nature of which Downton will examine.

By then, there will have been eight rounds of County Championship matches – almost half a season's worth – played, so that there would be an opportunity for a good amount of red ball cricket beforehand. However – and here is a dilemma – England's focus is also on the World Cup, which precedes the next Ashes series, and there are ODIs to play in late May.

As it happens, the first seven championship matches also coincide with the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League. Flower could insist that all his Test players participate in as many championship matches as possible as a precursor to the Sri Lanka series. Given what has happened, compromise may not be an option. We shall know soon enough. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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