England have been here before. The setting is different but the circumstances are only too familiar. On four occasions in the last two years they have been in a position to secure great prizes – at Headingley, at the Wanderers, at The Oval, where they could have won the series, and at the Waca where they could have clinched the Ashes themselves, and on all four they have failed to come away with what they went for.
On three of them, as it happened, their opponents merely delayed the inevitable, on the other, the series ended in a draw.
Today at Edgbaston, gloriously revamped at a cost of £32m, England will embark, riots notwithstanding, on their attempt to ensure that they are not deprived by India. Delay this time may prove costly. There is much to suggest that England can win the third Test to go 3-0 ahead, which will secure both the rubber and the No 1 place in the world Test rankings.
The home side have surmounted every obstacle put in their way in the first two matches and won two huge victories. The tourists, beset by injury, have been incapable of reinforcing any advantage. By the end of both Test matches played so far, the gap between the sides has been every bit as large as the run margins – respectively 196 and 319 – would suggest.
The green tinge to the pitch, which may have faded slightly by today, can only encourage England. They have by far the most potent of the two bowling attacks, pound for pound probably the most complete around, and have barely been impeded by India's much-vaunted batsmen.
They may need copious amounts of lip salve today after all that licking they must have been doing overnight. But the evidence of yesterday left little reason to think there will be any pace or bounce in the pitch.
England's coach Andy Flower, and selector and Warwickshire director of cricket, Ashley Giles, spent half an hour pondering the state of the surface with groundsman Steve Rouse and bouncing balls on it. Their discussions were probably about what to do if England were to win the toss for the first time in the series.
In the background of all considerations is England's recent failure to convert when given the opportunity. When England arrived at Headingley in 2009 they were excitedly aware that the Ashes were within their grasp, being 1-0 up with two to play. Three days later they had been beaten by an innings.
Nothing since has been quite as dramatic but in Johannesburg early the following year a tired side were clinging on desperately to a 1-0 lead and lost the final Test, also by an innings. At the Oval in 2010, England were 2-0 up against Pakistan with two to play and lost, and at Perth later that year when a victory would once more have secured the Ashes, they were comprehensively defeated.
While they were able to respond and beat Australia (twice) and Pakistan, they will neither wish nor dare to hand India a way back into the series. Once back, they have a habit of staying back and England will be mindful that their batsmen particularly have reputations to nurture.
Andrew Strauss, England's captain, said yesterday: "I certainly thought we learned lessons from Headingley in '09. We started looking too far ahead and looking at the outcome of the game rather than at starting the game well. Since then we have been keen to keep everyone's feet on the ground whether we are winning or losing. This is one of those circumstances. There is no point in looking too far ahead. Whether we win this game or not we are still going to have challenges ahead of us. All we can do is start the game well and be prepared to put in the hard work we have done over the past two Tests."
Nothing about India at present, apart from the reputations on which too many of their players are living, suggests they can find a way to beat England. They have looked a weary side who have played too much cricket for too long and at times in the field they have looked much worse than that.
No doubt Strauss senses this but is profoundly aware of the perils of enunciating it. Better to be aware of the danger posed by a beleaguered side. "When those sort of things happen on a tour they can act as a galvanising effect and India are a very strong side. They have shown that over the past two years and even in the two Tests we have played there have been moments when we have really had our backs to the wall."
England confirmed yesterday that Chris Tremlett will not play in the match because of a back injury and it is indicative of their present form that they will not be unduly concerned. There is no certainty that Tremlett will have recovered in time for the final Test at the Oval where he would relish the pace and bounce in the pitch.
The one change to the team that won so resoundingly in Nottingham will be Ravi Bopara for Jonathan Trott, who is still receiving treatment on the shoulder he injured while fielding. There is an enormous amount of goodwill towards Bopara, as Strauss conveyed.
"We're all delighted that Ravi has got a chance again," he said. "He has been knocking on the door for quite a long time. He fills the role that has been vacated by Jonathan Trott very well, a bit with his batting and his ability to bowl a few overs. One of the great abilities we have shown over recent times is for a player to come in and perform straight away. It's a great opportunity for Ravi to do something similar."
Bopara will not occupy the No 3 position which belonged to him during his last spell in the Test side and is now Trott's. Ian Bell, who scored a magnificent 159 at Trent Bridge, will go in at first wicket down.
If he succeeds again, the selectors may ponder whether to keep him there. Bell will be especially keen to do well. His long-time batting mentor, Neal Abberley, with whom he had worked since the age of eight, died earlier this week at the age of 67.
On the Edgbaston ground where they spent so many hours together as coach and pupil, Bell will want to pay his own kind of tribute.
Many a slip... Four times England failed to drive home advantage with prize beckoning
England are on the brink of being world No 1, but on four occasions in recent times they have failed to seize the prize of a series win or retention of the Ashes.
Australia at Headingley, August 2009
After Andrew Flintoff had inspired England to go 1-0 up at Lord's, Andrew Strauss's men turned up in Leeds for the penultimate Test looking for a victory to reclaim the urn. But the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. Matt Prior suffered back spasms before the game and England were then bundled out for just 102. Australia notched up 445 before England were rolled for 263 and were walloped by an innings and 80 runs.
South Africa, January 2010
On a fast, bouncy pitch at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, Dale Steyn ripped through England, who were skittled out for 180. Graeme Smith then hit a century – despite England being convinced he had edged a catch behind early on – before Morne Morkel ripped through England's batting a second time as they lost by an innings and 74 runs.
Pakistan at the Oval, August 2010
After two big England victories, Pakistan pulled off a shock, four-wicket win in south London. Wahab Riaz and then precocious youngster Mohammad Amir took five wickets apiece to leave the tourists with a tricky victory target of 148. Pakistan wobbled but Amir was at the crease to see them home. Little did we know that all hell was about to break loose.
Australia at Perth, December 2010
After a heroic draw in Brisbane and then a perfect performance at Adelaide, England headed to Perth looking to confirm they had retained the Ashes. But they were undone once again by fast, bouncy conditions, as Mitchell Johnson finally located his missing radar at the WACA with six wickets. Mike Hussey then bagged yet another century and Ryan Harris took six wickets in the second dig as England never got near their victory target.Reuse content