England captain Alastair Cook is facing the start of a crucial year, as he looks to rebuild after the disastrous Ashes tour in Australia.
Ahead of him will be numerous challenges both on and off the field, especially in terms of selection as he has something of a blank slate with which to work.
Not only that, he will have to juggle being England captain with maintaining his own high standards as a batsman, especially after suffering like virtually all his team-mates Down Under.
Read on for the 10 biggest threats to Cook’s captaincy in 2014, a list of challenges and problems that if he gets wrong, could cost him his job.
Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, England have struggled to find an opening partner for Alastair Cook after trying several options.
This is one issue that Cook will want to resolve quickly and convincingly, not only as it threatens to undermine him as a captain but also as a batsman.
Not only will Cook need to find another opener, he and the coaching staff also need to decide who will bat at No. 3.
Jonathan Trott’s decision to leave the recent Ashes tour with a stress-related illness left an enormous void in the top order.
He may well return to international cricket, although that could be unlikely, so Cook needs to find someone to replace him.
Ian Bell seems like the most sensible option, but if Cook gets the decision wrong it will undermine him as a leader and selector of players.
The biggest decision Cook has made with the ECB in recent times was to end Kevin Pietersen’s international career.
England’s most destructive and talented batsman of recent decades; Pietersen leaves an enormous hole in the middle order that must be filled by someone.
James Taylor is one player who has been mentioned as a possible replacement, and it is another selection worry that will weigh on Cook’s mind.
If he gets it right, he could usher in a new era for English cricket, but if he does not he could pay with his job.
Another tremendous position to fill is that of wicketkeeper, a spot that is now shrouded in uncertainty after Matt Prior was dropped in Australia.
While he remains the front-runner to regain his position in the summer, Prior’s decline Down Under was worrying and has opened the door for challengers.
He could either stick with Prior or give another a try with the gloves, and given the key role a wicketkeeper plays in cricket, it is a choice that will have far-reaching consequences.
If Cook makes the wrong decision, he will find his leadership questioned once again.
The final selection quandary that may determine how successful Cook is as captain in 2014 is that of deciding who will be England’s primary spin bowler after the retirement of Graeme Swann.
Scott Borthwick was selected for the fifth Test in Sydney and is highly rated by many in English cricket.
Cook will want to choose the right one and see that decision vindicated, or else it could be a long summer for England’s captain.
Outside the team, one big threat to Cook’s captaincy in 2014 will be the arrival of Sri Lanka on tour from May until June.
Cook will want to achieve victory in the five-match One Day International series and in the two Tests, and if he does not he will once again be under enormous pressure.
The two teams are very close in the ICC Test and ODI rankings, and it could be an absorbing series.
Almost as soon as Sri Lanka’s tour finishes, the main event of the summer begins as India travel to England for a packed international schedule.
Cook and his team will need to be at their best to defeat a talented India team, and if they are in anything but top form, they will struggle against the tourists.
If England are unable to earn victories in the five-match ODI and five-match Test series, Cook’s leadership will undoubtedly be criticised by many.
While there is talk of a new era in English cricket, some will remain from the 5-0 Ashes whitewash for the team to be built around, and they will need to perform.
In addition, Cook’s handling of Steven Finn, a talented bowler who struggles enormously with consistency, will come under close examination once again.
As their leader, Cook will be expected to get the best out of his top players, and if performances continue on a downward spiral it will be difficult for him to stay as captain.
At times on England’s tour of Australia, Cook looked physically and mentally exhausted from a three-and-a-half month tour that seemed to lurch from one disaster to another.
After England went 3-0 down, he talked explicitly about having to give up the ODI captaincy and possibly even the Test leadership, having cast a disconsolate appearance at times.
While he later said that he wanted to continue leading England, Cook will need to manage the fatigue associated with the job of captain.
If he can keep up with the demands of captaincy without being overwhelmed by fatigue, Cook will stay as England’s leader for some time to come.
However, if it all mounts up and becomes too much for him, it may well be the best thing for him to step aside and let someone else take the leader’s role.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Cook’s captaincy is a loss of form with the bat, as one can directly affect the other and drain his confidence.
A total of just three half-centuries and a batting average of 24.60 in Australia was a poor return and raises questions of whether he can balance being captain and opening batsman.
It may well be that he regains the scoring touch, especially if he plays in the early stages of the County Championship for Essex and scores runs heavily.
However, if Cook continues to struggle with the bat during the summer, he may well find his captaincy undermined as England need their captain to contribute on a regular basis.