England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, Trent Bridge August 5, 2015

Ashes dream tantalisingly close for Cook

Even in the absence of James Anderson this is a gilt-edged opportunity for England to regain the Ashes with a match to spare

Just for a moment, Alastair Cook let his guard down. Just for a moment, he allowed himself to look beyond the end of this week and dream of what success in the fourth Investec Ashes Test would mean to him and his England team.

"Nobody gave us a chance at the beginning of the series," Cook said with some edge. "Everyone was writing us off."

But then he remembered himself. He remembered how quickly fortunes in this game can change and he remembered how England's recent record had been, in his words "consistently inconsistent." He pulled back. Now was not the moment for that speech.

"There's a lot of cricket to play," he said. "I'm not looking at the end of this five days, I'm looking at the first hour on the first morning."

It was a sensible decision. If England do win at Trent Bridge over the next few days, the Ashes will be theirs and Cook can do all the "I told you so" talking he likes. He will deserve every accolade. If they don't, his words may be used to beat him over the head for years to come.

But, make no mistake, England are on the brink. A team that were humiliated at the World Cup at the start of the year, could not beat a side their chairman called "mediocre" in the Caribbean and were then held to a draw at home by New Zealand, really do have an outstanding chance to beat an Australia whose leading batsman, Steven Smith, claimed England "won't get close" to defeating.

Nobody thinks this England side is the finished article. But they are progressing. This series, so high profile and defining, probably came a little too early in its life-cycle. Some might interpret two wins from the first three Test as over-achieving at this stage of their development. That should be remembered even if they lose these last two matches.

For these are early days. Jos Buttler is still, clearly, a player in development. Moeen Ali is, clearly, still developing his skills as a spinner and learning how to bat at No. 8. Steven Finn is, clearly, on the first steps of a comeback journey. Mark Wood is learning about Test cricket, Joe Root has more challenges to face and Gary Ballance is currently licking his wounds and preparing for another crack at things. Even Ben Stokes, for all the talent, is still learning what is required of a Test allrounder. And to ground his bat when running.

The conditions look likely to be typically English, at least for the first day or two. England should have the experience in their side to exploit home advantage

The encouraging thing is, they all have scope for improvement. Whatever happens over the next few weeks, all of them will be back for more Ashes series in the future. That is not something Australia can say about several of the squad that started this tour. While even Cook and Stuart Broad could be involved in the next couple of Ashes series - Ian Bell may retire a bit earlier than some expect - probably as many as seven of the Australian squad that started this tour will be gone by the next time these sides meet in Test cricket. For some of them, it is now or never.

The Trent Bridge pitch - "similar to Edgbaston" in Cook's words - offers England as good a chance as they will ever have. The conditions look likely to be typically English, at least for the first day or two. England should have the experience in their side to exploit home advantage.

The loss of James Anderson - the man with the exceptional record at Trent Bridge - is colossal, but it may prove relevant that his replacement, Wood also had a good record at the ground. In three first-class matches here - his first three Championship matches - he has taken 15 wickets at an average of 22.53. The pitch, with its tint of green grass, should continue to encourage swing bowlers.

If England are to clinch the Ashes over the next few days, they will have to end their remarkable run of inconsistency. Four times in the last seven Tests, they have won only to then lose the subsequent Test.

One theory to explain England's inconsistency is that they perform less well in the second of back-to-back Tests. While there is some evidence to support such a belief - they lost at Headingley (to New Zealand) and Lord's (to Australia) in such circumstances - they also won in Grenada (the second in a back-to-back parcel of games) and they lost in Barbados having benefited from a few days extra break.

It may be simply that inconsistency is a hallmark of a young, developing side. But the England camp feel they perform at their best when fresh. So while they reported for this match 24 hours earlier than had originally been planned, they also benefited from the early finish at Edgbaston.

The training sessions invariably include football these days - for a while it was deemed too high risk - while the team trained at Nottingham Forest on Monday afternoon. They work hard, certainly, but there is more emphasis on enjoyment than for some time. If there is tension in the camp, it is well concealed. They look as if they are relishing it.

And why wouldn't they? This is the pinnacle. This is the moment of which they dreamed when they first started playing. As Cook put it, "someone has an opportunity to make a name for themselves. If someone scores a big hundred or takes six or seven wickets to help England win, their name will be etched in history forever." Root and co. have an opportunity to achieve what a generation of England players - players as good as Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart and Darren Gough - could never do.

Some substantial challenges remain. It is rare to win an Ashes series with only one man (Root) in the side having made a century. More is required from Adam Lyth (averaging 12) and Buttler (13.40), in particular. It would be remarkable to win an Ashes series with two of the top seven contributing so little and another man dropped.

Most of all, though, England know that Mitchell Johnson remains an acute threat. To see England's middle-order preparing to face him by weaving out of the way of throw-downs rearing off a sheet of metal in an attempt to recreate the unique bounce he achieves was to understand the challenge he represents. Johnson was, for a few minutes at Edgbaston, utterly magnificent. Had he won better support from his seam-bowling colleagues, Australia might have clawed their way back into the match. No side containing him can ever be discounted.

But what once seemed improbable for England, now appears tantalisingly close. Win, lose or draw, though, this is a young England side and its best should be some way in the future.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo