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.
"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