Alastair Cook led England to success, but now finds himself defending challenges to step down. Photo: Reuters
That this time last year England was two-nil up, on the way to a third straight Ashes series win, now feels like a trick of the memory. Even harder to get the mind around is that seven months earlier, in late-2012, Alastair Cook's team came from behind in India to achieve a monumental series victory.
Such was the spirit and confidence of that English group. Even the great Australian teams of Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh succumbed in the sub-continent. And three months after England's 2012 triumph, Michael Clarke's team trod that dusty path and was handed a 4-nil drubbing. It didn't augur well for the forthcoming back-to-back Ashes series.
And look at them now. And look at the skippers. Not only is Clarke in control of Test cricket's top-ranked nation, he is rightfully seen as the game's foremost leader. Cook, on the other hand, is down and very nearly out.
The man who so recently led England to great success finds himself surrounded by a deafening clamour of resignation calls. Unless he can, in the remainder of the series against India, turn around his own form and that of his team, he would appear doomed.
Central to a captain's ability to successfully lead a team is his own game. Steve Waugh impressed this upon Ricky Ponting when handing him the Australian leadership. Few have defied that compelling reality.
Even Mark Taylor, one of Australia's best captains, ran the risk of leading a fractured team when his form deserted him from late-1996. Indeed, Taylor makes an interesting point of comparison with fellow left-handed opener, Cook.
The Englishman arrived faster, at a younger age, and had played 60 Tests before producing his magnum opus: a Walter Hammond-like 766 runs at 128 per innings in an Ashes series in Australia. Taylor's equivalent had come in his first full series: a Bradman-like 839 over six Tests in the 1989 Ashes contest.
In each case, the achievement revealed the combination of skill and temperament selectors would look for in a leader. When promotion duly came, each confirmed that the impression had been accurate.
Taylor led Australia with authority and imagination. His achievements included the reclaiming of the Frank Worrell Trophy in the West Indies, three Ashes triumphs, and victory in South Africa.
Cook took over England's leadership from Andrew Strauss prior to the 2012 tour of India and immediately inspired his team by example. In that glorious series he scored centuries in each of the first three Tests to anchor England's victory. There followed wins over New Zealand and Australia.
But the dual tasks of being an opening batsman and a captain have weighed on a number of fine players in the modern game. Michael Atherton, a predecessor of Cook's, relinquished the captaincy in 1998 after a 12-match spell without a hundred. Even Graeme Smith, who handled both jobs superbly, was struggling for consistent runs – at the same age as Taylor during his slump – when he recently pulled the curtain on his Test career.
Once confidence is shaken, it seems life for the captain who opens the batting can be inordinately difficult. This is, after all, a tough enough job without demons constantly taunting the psyche about potential failure on two fronts.
I recall Taylor's form being raised publicly, perhaps for the first time, prior to the Melbourne Test against the West Indies in late-1996. Reporter Rob Waters put to the Australian captain that he hadn't scored a 50 in his previous five Tests.
While that was true, Taylor had been getting starts and at that stage was far from a lame duck opener. But as soon as someone "mentioned the war", things changed. It was as though a genie had escaped the bottle. Taylor's six subsequent matches, against the West Indies and South Africa, yielded scarcely more than a hundred runs and he was engulfed in crisis.
When he famously saved his bacon, with a fighting second innings century at Edgbaston in the opening match of the 1997 Ashes series, he had gone 13 Tests without a ton.
Cook's drought has now lasted 14 matches and – like Taylor when things turned against him – seems to be sliding further with every outing. In five Tests this year, even a half-century has eluded him.
To make matters worse, his team is now losing. The Ashes humiliation in Australia has been followed by defeat against Sri Lanka in a short series, and an early deficit in the current contest with India. It's a far cry from the heroics of 20 months ago in Mumbai and Kolkata. On the credit side, Cook is not yet 30 so should still be at his physical peak.
Perhaps his other saving grace is the lack of a serious alternative. The fact that Eoin Morgan, who hasn't been picked for a Test match since early 2012, would be spoken of as the most likely contender indicates the difficulty faced by the selectors.
All of which suggests England is back where it has so often been through the past 25 years: a struggling team with a struggling skipper and no saviour in sight.