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Harry Brook eyes century to close out Ashes ahead of Oval reunion

Batter aiming for punchy climax but believes even a 3-1 Australia win would not diminish England's efforts

Harry Brook gets ready to bat during England's training session, London, July 25, 2023

Harry Brook gets ready to bat during England's training session  •  Getty Images

Harry Brook is about a month shy of a year as a Test cricketer. But on the eve of his 12th Test cap at the Kia Oval, where his journey in this format began in September 2022 against South Africa, this feels as good a time as any to reflect on his journey to date - particularly with the Ashes gone.
It has been an odd series for Brook, his first against Australia. He is averaging 38.71 from seven knocks, with three half-centuries, one of them a vital 75 scored in the run-chase at Headingley, another a fifty at Lord's that he's not all that proud of. Naturally, he hopes three figures will come into this week to make amends for the missed opportunities. England are looking to square the series 2-2, as much to back up their feeling that they have made most of the running across these five matches as to scupper Australia's hopes for a first away Ashes win since 2001.
"I feel like I've had a couple of opportunities this series to have got a 100 and I've thrown them away so we'll see how I go this week. Got 46 at Edgbaston, 61 last week (Emirates Old Trafford) and maybe that fifty at Lord's but I was batting crap so…
"I feel like I was too reckless at Lord's. There's a fine line between being aggressive and reckless. So it's just trying to find that balance.
"I'd probably rather be on the recklessness side than the tentative side. Just always looking to score and I'm not just there to survive."
During the Headingley Test, Brook became the fastest batter to 1,000 runs, needing just 1,058 deliveries across 17 innings for the milestone. With that came a reminder of his brilliance during the winter with four centuries and a remarkable average of 88.55 across the Pakistan and New Zealand tours. Having tailed England across the country last summer, he was drafted for the third South Africa Test after Jonny Bairstow's catastrophic leg break, before making the No.5 position his own. No small feat given Bairstow was the key driver of the Bazball movement.
Perhaps the Headingley Test best sums up Brook's summer. He found himself having to moonlight as a No.3 in the first innings of the third Test after Ollie Pope picked up a series-ending shoulder injury during the Lord's Test. A skittish three in the first innings was uncomfortable enough viewing that England wondered if they needed to move Brook back down the order to get the best out of him. Up stepped Moeen Ali to offer them a solution, which paid dividends as Brook top-scored in the successful chase of 251 from his usual slot.
"I'll probably be lying if I [said I] wasn't," he answered when asked if he was grateful for Moeen's selflessness. "I'm happy to just be in the XI to be honest. Whether that's batting at three or five, I'm happy to just be playing Test cricket. I feel like I've probably done better at five because I haven't batted at three much. He took it upon himself to to go up there. And yeah, it could have been a match-winning decision."
You could argue Brook's winter form complicated matters this summer. He had done enough to claim the No.5 position as his own, meaning Bairstow's return to the XI came at the expense of Ben Foakes. Given the chances spurned by England's wicketkeeper this series, it is an awkward sliding-doors moment to consider.
Not that Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum are into those thought exercises. Following confirmation of the abandonment of the fourth Test, Stokes gathered the players in the dressing-room to lift their spirits and reiterate that results do not define them. He gave an insight into his speech during his post-match press conference: "I said in the dressing-room, the reward for your work isn't what you get, it's what you become."
A few days on, Brook reflected on that chat, and what he took away from it.
"It was a great speech to be honest. He was just saying, it's not about all the trophies, It's about making sure everybody's enjoying watching cricket and I feel like we're going to be a team to be remembered. I think we're bringing different crowds coming to watch the game, more people are getting into Test cricket and we're almost trying to get it back alive again. I think we've done a decent job of that over the last 12 months and it's been exciting to watch and it's definitely been exciting to play."
Exciting enough for Brook to state unequivocally he wants England to be his No.1 pursuit. Despite being a multi-format player, Brook is only on an incremental contract, considered in the region of £66,000, before appearance bonuses. That he was signed for £1.3 million by Sunrisers Hyderabad for the 2022 IPL highlights the disparity between international and franchise cricket.
Brook is expected to be front and centre of the new round of central contracts, with the likelihood the ECB will offer him a multi-year deal in the hope of staving off the imposing threat of these global tournaments, many with IPL backing. Would he take it if offered? "Yeah, absolutely."
"I want to play cricket for England. I'm not bothered about all the franchise stuff. Obviously, it's a bonus but I'm completely focused on playing cricket for England.
"If I'm in all three formats for England, I don't really feel like there's too much time to be playing any other franchise stuff, to be honest. The IPL is the only one that is really free, when you're available for everything. There won't be much thought there."
It might annoy traditionalists that a cricketer opting to play for his country for lots of money is celebrated as "loyalty". But cricket's marketplace is evolving, and a 24-year-old with talent to burn has plenty of options to fashion a lucrative career in the game without international cricket.
The difference, perhaps, is the current England set-up. McCullum has often spoken of stripping away the pressures of Test cricket to give it more of a franchise feel. Brook is clearly thriving in this environment. Moreover, he acknowledged that, under a different coach and captain, he may not have been as successful or picked at all.
"Had it been different management, I don't think it would have happened," said Brook. "I probably wouldn't have had the freedom and the backing of everybody to go out there and play the way I have. Credit to them two guys as well."
As thoughts turn to the start of the final Test this Thursday, there is a degree of sadness this was not the winner-takes-all showdown it could have been. For Brook, however, even if England cannot make it 2-2, he believes they can be proud of how they have approached this Ashes series - even if it finishes 3-1 to Australia.
"That's the whole mantra, we're trying to excite people watching, we're trying to enjoy ourselves and we're trying to bring new crowds to the game and get Test cricket alive again. I think we've already done it this series. Whichever way the result goes this week, yeah, I think we've had a good series."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo