England target Ashes history
August 20-24, 2015
Start time 11am local (1000GMT)
England have never won four Tests in a home Ashes series. Even if the Ashes series is settled, it would be some way to finish. The lure of 4-1 has been enough for Alastair Cook to ring round each member of the England squad between Tests, when supposedly on holiday, urging them to keep their focus.
In an era when international cricket is largely the province of pay TV, cricket needs strong images to retain a hold on the nation's consciousness. The Ashes has already provided one. Whatever occurs in the final Investec Test at The Oval, the image that many have taken to their hearts has been that of Stuart Broad's face, hands clasped to his mouth like a delighted ingénue, rather than an experienced Test bowler with 308 Test wickets, the response to Ben Stokes' remarkable catch at Trent Bridge, the defining moment of a first day in which Australia plunged headlong to 60 all out and Broad himself revelled in figures of 8 for 15.
That was pretty much that, as far as the destination of the urn was concerned. But if an Ashes series has to reach the final Test with the series settled, there is no ground, not even Lord's, that can shrug off a largely meaningless match as successfully as The Oval. The atmosphere is more egalitarian and convivial south of the river, this capacious and increasingly confident a place of light hearts and sunshine, the tenebrosity of the press box apart; a place to party.
It is here where careers, in a perfect world, should end with a mild intoxication that can be brought about by nothing stronger than happy memories now at an end. Two Australian batsmen, Michael Clarke and Chris Rogers, are different types, and their careers have been very different, one not quite great, but certainly an acquaintance of greatness for as long as he can remember, the other a decent, workaday opener finding pleasure to the end in a late opportunity that he had long suspected had passed him by. It is Rogers who reaches the final week still looking most up for the challenge.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
For Alastair Cook, an Ashes victory must have felt like more than just another achievement in the career ledger, it must have come as a blessed relief. Since England's debacle in Australia in 2013-14, the fallout with Kevin Pietersen meant that through no fault of his own he was landed with the role as the moral conscience of England cricket, because of the simple fact that any official narrative with a baddie also needs a goodie.
That burden has now been laid to rest, leaving Cook with a final opportunity to produce a major Ashes innings, one to add to his 27 Test centuries, an England record. He has played just one statistically significant innings in this series, 96 in the defeat at Lord's.
A predictable choice perhaps, but the spotlight is also on his opposite number Michael Clarke. He has spent the past week in London with his family, the photographers had little difficulty catching him yawning in Tuesday's training session and when asked how he would fare without cricket to get up for in a morning, he responded: "I can't wait."
In such a mood, it is debatable whether sticking out the series after announcing his retirement was psychologically the right thing to do, either for himself or his team. That it felt like an obligation both to Clarke and many others is certain. That does not necessarily mean that it was right - by contrast, MS Dhoni retired after Melbourne on India's tour last year, and did not play in the final Test in Sydney, just sticking around the squad in case of emergency. Clarke's performance at The Oval will go a long way to revealing the sense, or otherwise, of his actions.
James Anderson will miss out after failing to recover from a side strain. It would have been madness to take even the slightest risk with such a priceless asset. Instead, Anderson can rest up for the October rigours awaiting him in the Emirates. With the Ashes won, England for once were not coy about their starting XI with captain Alastair Cook confirming an unchanged line-up from the victorious XI at Trent Bridge.
That means no Test debut for Adil Rashid, who has hung around England nets since he was selected for the tour of the West Indies in April in the forlorn hope of a Test debut and, as a result, has bowled only 155 overs in five Championship matches this season - not ideal preparation for a likely tour against Pakistan in the UAE. It will be interesting to see if England consider leaving him out of the ODI series to help him into Test match rhythm for the challenges that may lie ahead
England 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Adam Lyth, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Joe Root, 5 Jonny Bairstow, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Steven Finn
Pat Cummins is set to make a long-awaited return to Test cricket four years after a spectacular debut in South Africa, stepping in for Josh Hazlewood. Australia's other pace bowling option, Peter Siddle, picked up a groin niggle against Northamptonshire and so is expected to complete what will be a final Ashes tour without adding to his 56 Tests. At 30, it seems a little premature to write him off entirely although Siddle, reportedly, has raised such fears in his most pessimistic moments. A second change should see Australia abandon their four-bowler policy at Trent Bridge and replace Shaun Marsh with his brother Mitchell, Adam Voges' battling half-century in Nottingham seen as worthy of retention.
Australia (possible) 1 David Warner, 2 Chris Rogers, 3 Steven Smith, 4 Michael Clarke (capt), 5 Adam Voges, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Peter Nevill (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Pat Cummins, 11 Nathan Lyon
Pitch and conditions
Even The Oval, where England's bounciest, driest, most abrasive surfaces have often been found, reportedly has more moisture than normal in a series where England have exposed Australia's deficiencies against the moving ball. With warm, overcast conditions forecast, and the chance of some rain on Sunday, it was no surprise that Rashid's hopes of a Test debut were again scuppered.
Michael Clarke described it in one word. "Green," he said. This Ashes series also draws to an end with lots of talk about the ball. Australia use the Kookaburra, in common with the majority of Test nations, but the hand-stitched Duke, more beloved of swing and seam bowlers, is growing in popularity and Ricky Ponting, for one, has called for its adoption in Australia to challenge batting techniques. Nobody chooses a match ball more carefully than Anderson and, unfit or not, he will doubtless have an input: a slightly more pronounced seam and slightly darker leather (suggesting greater absorbing of dye so better shine retention) are among the things he looks for.
Stats and trivia
- Four of the five leading wicket takers in the series are Australian, with only Stuart Broad (21) leading Starc (18), Hazlewood (16), Lyon (12) and Johnson (11)
- Steven Finn needs one wicket to reach 100 in Tests
- Rogers, in his final Test, is 28 runs short of 2000
"There might be one or two places available against San Marino."
Roy Hodgson, England's football manager, pops into The Oval to check out an England football kick around taking a little more seriously than usual
"You're going to tailor the conditions to help your side. It's up to the other sides to adapt and get better."
Chris Rogers, preparing for his last Test, and a man who knows English conditions as well as any tourist, is one Australian at least who is capable of taking a relaxed attitude to another green England Test pitch.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps