England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval August 20, 2013

Cook leads England to brink of history


England stand on the cusp of history as they go into the final Test of the Investec Ashes series at The Oval on Wednesday.

In a rivalry stretching back over 130 years, no England side has ever won a home Ashes series 4-0. But, having won three out of four Tests this series, England have earned the opportunity to exploit Australia's brittle batting and even more brittle confidence by rounding off this series with another victory. It is a situation that, for many years, would have seemed unthinkable.

For a team that was so comprehensively outplayed through much of the 1990s, in particular, to have won four Ashes series out of five is almost an unprecedented level of success. For Alastair Cook to have enjoyed series wins against India, New Zealand and Australia within his first year of Test captaincy is remarkable.

In years to come, it may be appreciated more. For now, Cook and his side remain somewhat grudgingly praised. There is something about their no-frills style - Kevin Pietersen aside - and the uncompromising professionalism of their approach - described as "un-English" by Stuart Broad on Tuesday - that does not capture the imagination like some of the fine sides of the past.

But there is something deeply impressive in an England attack containing three men with over 200 Test wickets and an England batting line-up containing three men with 20 Test centuries or more. Their cricket, at its best a relentless brand of attrition, might not always be pleasing on the eye, but it is pragmatic, effective and has led to a run of 12 successive unbeaten Tests and four successive unbeaten series. To England supporters, at least, there is a certain beauty in that.

There has been, at times, a temptation to explain away England's successes in recent years. When they won the 2010-11 Ashes series in Australia against a team containing Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey - winning three Tests by an innings, unparalleled margins of defeat for Australia in Australia - it was dismissed as a freak result achieved against the weakest Australia team in 30 years.

When England defeated India, then the No. 1-ranked Test team and containing several great batmen, 4-0 in England in 2011, it was dismissed as another freak result achieved on doctored pitches and against a declining side.

Even when they won 2-1 in India - a remarkable result given they lost the first Test - it was seen more as a result of India's failings than England's strengths.

So if they do win this series 4-0, a result that even teams containing Hobbs, Hammond or Hutton couldn't manage, it really may be time to appreciate that this is, by England's standards, a once in a lifetime period.

"The best thing about this side in this series is we haven't quite hit our straps totally at all times. There's a lot more to come from this side. As a captain that's very encouraging"
England captain Alastair Cook

"It would be very special to win the Investec Ashes 4-0," Cook said on the eve of the game. "It has never been done before so that is our motivation as a side.

"We have a lot of record breakers in this team and the chance to add another little notch is a great motivation. Any time you can beat Australia is a great feeling.

"The best thing about this side in this series is we haven't quite hit our straps totally at all times. There's a lot more to come from this side. As a captain that's very encouraging. The players know that as well. Just watching the training session now, you wouldn't know we're 3-0 up. They're still going on strong now."

The similarities between the England side in 2010-11 and now are significant. Indeed, nine of the likely 11 here played in the final Test of the 2010-11 Ashes series in Australia. Only five of Australia's XI did. And, while Australia have changed their top six and bottom four in every Test of the series, England have made only one selection change for form rather than injury all series. The shared experiences, values and methods of the England team are clearly a key factor in their success.

Cook provided a strong hint that Chris Tremlett would be the man to replace the injured Tim Bresnan for this game. While Tremlett may have lost some of the pace that made him such a dangerous proposition, he can still be relied upon to maintain control with his high action and bounce. As such, he fits into England's game plan better than the quicker but less consistent Steven Finn.

"He's got a good chance of playing," Cook said. "He has had a tough year with injury. But we all saw in Australia when he was fully fit what a hard bowler he is to face. It's very hard for a batter to score from him when he gets it right."

Pitches at The Oval this summer have tended to be disappointingly slow. Part of the square will be re-laid this winter in a bid to recover some of the life that used to make games on this ground such a pleasure. While the groundstaff hope this pitch will have a little more life in it than those used in county matches, it is unlikely to offer too much encouragement for seamers.

Dry, flat and even paced, it is clearly a bat-first wicket that should provide some help for spinners as the game progresses in weather that is expected to remain warm. A batsman or two is likely to enjoy it greatly over the first couple of days.

Cook hopes, naturally, that it will be him. His form, and his captaincy, had come under some scrutiny this series, but the signs were he was rediscovering his touch in Durham and he remains insistent that his batting has not been adversely affected by the burden of captaincy. Indeed, in India, where he scored centuries in three successive Tests, it appeared to do him the power of good.

"A few times in this Test series we've lost early wickets up top," Cook said. "I've been the casualty a few times so I bear a lot of that responsibility. That's a clear area we can get better. If we get that right, we become a very dangerous side.

"I've given my batting just as much attention as if I wasn't captain. That's certainly not why I haven't scored the runs I'd have liked in this series. Sometimes it's the natural ebb and flow of form.

"All I can do is know that my record suggests that I will score runs. I've done that in the past. I'm hammering my basics - I'm doing the good stuff - and it's just a matter of time hopefully before it turns and I get a little bit of luck which you always need at the top of the order and get that score."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • DINESH on August 21, 2013, 10:56 GMT

    RGK1974: The scoreline reads as 3-0 in favour of England. But the fact is excepting the 2nd test, aussies were in full dominance. Ist test the loss was by only 14 runs and oz taken 1st innings lead. The game would have won by them with 3 good hits. 3rd test rain saved England. Had Clarke allowed Haddin and Starc to play another 10 overs in the 1st innings, even rain would not have saved England. 4th test, oz taken 1st innings lead and dominated the full 3 days test and in the 4th day because of the heroics of Bresnan England won the match with the help of rain and Hotspot controversies. It should have been 3-1 in favour of OZ instead of 0-3.

  • David on August 21, 2013, 10:31 GMT

    with regard to great historical wins for England, no English team has won successive Ashes series in Australia since they won the Bodyline series in 32/33 4-1- England won 4-1 in 1928/29, but lost 2-1 in 1930. Ashes victories in Australia have been rare for England ever since - 54/55, 70/71, 78/79, 86/87, 2010/11. During the same period, Australia have won 9 series in England.

    The last time England went to Australia as overwhelming favourites (58/59) they got tanked 4-0.

    History is therefore stacked against England retaining the Ashes Down Under - although this ought to be the merest slither of hope for Australia.

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2013, 10:19 GMT

    The main difference between the sides is Ian Bell. Bell is the man of the series.

  • colin on August 21, 2013, 9:54 GMT

    Ref calcu; A fine example of one eyed optimism totally at odds with the facts.

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2013, 8:25 GMT

    I would have accepted this England side to be a great one, if they had shown some fight against SA. They lost badly 2-0. They lost 3-0 to Pakistan . they almost lost to NZ. Aus is a confused side now, India can never play well outside Asia and NZ are unpredictable. To sum up, they Right now, are best among the mediocre sides that are playing. I would agree if they beat Pakistan and South Africa comfortably, which will not happen .

  • Android on August 21, 2013, 8:06 GMT

    may be England need to play tests with Pakistan in UAE to prove they are not just good at their backyard

  • David on August 21, 2013, 8:00 GMT

    @ Liquefierrrr - good assessment of England's strengths and main weakness - tedious tactics and lack of flair, KP apart.

    Somewhere in Zimbabwe there is a perfect hybrid of Andy Flower and Duncan Fletcher, in which the former's love of consistency over unnecessary risk is combined with the love of fire and untamed pace preferred by the latter. Find that man and give him the England job.

    I like this England side, but they aren't as likeable as the more swashbuckling Vaughan side that beat SA in SA and then beat Aus in 2005. We need a couple of great bowlers - Broad and Finn have it in them, but they need to find consistency. Adam Gilchrist admitted that two great bowlers was the main thing that separated Aus from the rest; having just one currently sets SA apart.

    Only time will tell.

  • Owen on August 21, 2013, 7:45 GMT

    'an almost unprecedented level of success' - from England perhaps, but as the sentence before alluded to the fact that Australia have often beaten England by this scoreline, it's only unprecedented if you think the cricketing world revolves solely around England. And apart from being so one-eyed, it is amazing just how dull this article makes England out to be.

  • Peter on August 21, 2013, 7:07 GMT

    Comments on these articles just show tired old prejudices. Teams don't like England so when they win their style is "boring" or "lucky". Indian cricket supporters try to cover the decline of their team as a Test team by criticising others. Reality is England beat them home and away. To their credit the Aussie fans have largely acknowledged their decline and, admirably England's strength and dominance, evident from this series. Fact is England haven't shown their best in this series. Worringly for opponents its clear there is more to come. With good young players coming through their is no sign of a decline on the horizon. SA are top of the tree for good reason, but Eng can challenge that over next 2-3 years

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2013, 7:00 GMT

    Hobbs and Hutton couldn't win 4-0 because of the strength of the opposition