Cautious Cook keeps eyes down
Alastair Cook did not make his name with outrageous strokes or flamboyant innings, so it should be no surprise that his measured approach to batting is reflected in his captaincy.
That is not to say that Cook's approach is limited or lacking in ambition. Just that Cook, like Andy Flower, the coach in whose image this entire England team is moulded, is a pragmatist more than a dreamer. While others plan for the long term, Cook focuses on the present. He knows that his success has come, not through a flash of genius or a preposterous talent, but through hard work, application, discipline and determination. And he is not about to abandon those qualities now he is on the threshold of an achievement that may well define him as a captain.
Rightly or wrongly, England and Australia players are still judged - disproportionately, really - by their own supporters on their success in Ashes series. So for Cook, aged only 28 and in his first summer as Test captain, to already have such a landmark achievement in sight is remarkable.
Two-nil up with three to play, England need only a draw at Old Trafford to retain the Ashes. Bearing in mind Manchester's reputation for rain - England's practice session on the eve of the game had to take place inside due to a torrential downpour - that may prove pertinent.
But while the media, in particular, are already starting to speculate on the possibility of a 5-0 whitewash, the England captain remains as calm and unruffled as ever: the one-ball-at-a-time mantra has served him well and he will not deviate from it. There is no talk in the England camp about whitewashes.
It's not hard to understand Cook's caution. England have been on the crest of a wave before, only to crash dramatically. No sooner had they won the Ashes in 2005 than they were defeated by Pakistan, while the same team dragged them back to earth at the start of 2012 just after England had reached the No. 1 Test ranking.
They have experience in Ashes encounters, too. In 2009, for example, England went to Leeds on the back of some good performances only to succumb to an innings-and-80-run defeat that gave Australia a lifeline in the series. Similarly, in 2010-11, they went to Perth on the back of a strong win in Adelaide, and were brushed aside by 267 runs.
And then there was the entire 2006-07 series. Cook and several of his team experienced a thrashing in that series and the pain of it has instilled not just a fear of failure, but a fear of the complacency and hubris that often precede it. For Cook and Flower, complacency is an almost unimaginable indulgence.
"That was a miserable time," Cook said as he reflected on the 2006-07 Ashes. "They just showed the Brisbane Test on Sky Sports and it was a very tough introduction to Ashes cricket. But it has gone now and it was part of my learning experience as a player. You can't keep looking back. We focus on today and today only.
"At Headingley in 2009 we did start thinking too far ahead. I admit I do remember saying 'If we win here, we win the Ashes'. There was that mentality and we forgot about the hard work. I can't remember who won the toss, but we were suddenly bowled out for 150 and you don't win many games from there.
"Perth was different. I think you have to give credit to the way Australia played in that game. I don't think it was anything to do with it being 1-0 in the series. It wasn't a do-or-die game as such and they out-skilled us. Today we are very much focusing on that first day, that first thing that we have to do.
"There has been a lot of talk about 5-0, but that has come from outside the dressing room. We are very much focused on this game and this game only. What happens after that we will re-evaluate before the next game at Durham and then the next game at The Oval. That is the only way. We know it works for us better than anything else. Anything else you end up taking your eye off the ball and do not play good cricket."
It is not, perhaps, the most exciting approach. But it is sensible, it is characteristic and it has served England and Cook well. They are the accountants of world cricket. While West Indies and Pakistan flirt with success and failure in a thrilling yet infuriating fashion, England play the percentages, accumulate the runs and sustain the 'good areas' with the ball. It may not make them a great side, but it has made them, arguably, as good as they can be. You cannot ask for more.
The one man on either side who might be described as a genius is Kevin Pietersen. He is the only batsman in the England side, at least, who can transcend any conditions and any attack to shape a game in little more than a session.
But, while Cook remains hopeful that Pietersen will have suffered no reaction to Wednesday's fitness test, he also remained confident that England could win without him if necessary.
"We've played some pretty good cricket without him in the side," Cook said. "Clearly he is a world-class player, let's make no mistake about that, and he is a player who can change games very quickly. There are not many like that around.
"But I think this England squad, especially over the last few years, has developed enough that the players in the squad have also produced some fantastic cricket as well. Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott: they are world class batters as well, so we are not as reliant on Kev as we were once a few years ago."
A final decision on Pietersen's inclusion will be made on the morning of the game and left, largely, to the individual.
"At the end of the day it is pretty much the player's responsibility," Cook said. "You can have as much medical advice and technology as there is today but only the player deep down knows what he is thinking and that is pretty much it.
"He has always been desperate to play for England. He has always worked incredibly hard at his game and over the past week he has worked incredibly hard behind the scenes at rehab, which is not the most fun thing to do, to get himself right for this game."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo