The Ashes 2013: England relish chance to wrap up series against Australia early
Alastair Cook shuns any talk of making history as bedraggled Australia cling to hopes of an unlikely turnaround
England can secure the Ashes and win the series against Australia at Old Trafford in the next five days. A draw will be sufficient to achieve the first of those ambitions, a fifth consecutive Test victory against Australia will ensure the second. Times have never been like this.
It was all that Alastair Cook, England's captain, could do to resist the invitation to dwell on the prospect of such history in the making. But resist he did because England, tantalised though they must be by what could happen by Monday, must put such thoughts from their mind and deal with the specific job at hand.
"It is very exciting," said Cook. "We have obviously earned the right to get into this position as a team. It is a great opportunity we have, but you cannot start thinking about anything else. We break it down into what we have to do in this game and we do not get carried away by Ashes wins and all that kind of stuff.
"It's the first hour tomorrow. One of the strengths we do as a side is trying to break it down into as small things as we can. So one hour at a time, not looking too far ahead."
Twice before in recent series, England have allowed Australia back into the contest. At home four years ago, the Ashes were at their mercy when they arrived at Headingley 1-0 up with two to play, only to be 72 for 6 at lunch on the first day with the match already disappearing down Kirkstall Lane.
In Australia the following year, they went to Perth on the back of a coruscating victory in Adelaide, aware that a win would secure the Ashes, and were disrupted by brilliant bowling from Mitchell Johnson. On both occasions, England, then under the stewardship of Andrew Strauss, responded forcefully and everything turned out happily in the end.
It seems inconceivable that Australia, bewitched, bedraggled and bewildered, are in a state to close the gap. But if from somewhere they can find something that has as yet shown no sign of existing and manage to win in Manchester then the dynamic of the whole summer would shift.
To give them succour, the tourists are clinging on to the closeness of the first Test in Nottingham, which they lost by 14 runs. But the harsh truth is that they were 117 for 9 in their first innings, still 98 runs adrift, when an unprecedented 10th-wicket stand changed their fortunes.
Without that, they may easily have been swept aside as they were at Lord's a week later when England, without being wholly convincing themselves, won by 347 runs. Australia insist that if they bring their best game with them then they can win. Perhaps there is more to this than self-delusion but then if England ever managed to do likewise that would create a whole new set of difficulties.
Before the series began, predictions were hedged on the basis that England might not be as good as they thought they were and that Australia might not be as bad as was feared. That still seems to have been a reasonable basis for assessment. So far England – 11 for 2, 28 for 3 and 30 for 3 in three of their four innings – have not been as efficient as they would have liked. Australia have been every bit as poor as they could have been.
The pitch at Old Trafford, being played on for the first time in a Test match since being moved at right angles, is likely to have retained many of its traditional virtues. It should encourage batsmen at the start, fast bowlers willing to bend their back throughout and spin towards the close.
Reverse swing may play a part if the ground manages to remain dry despite the heavy rain, in which case the tourists will feel their opportunities are enhanced. Assessing the match compartment by compartment, discipline by discipline points only one way.
England appear to be picking from a full-strength squad. Kevin Pietersen batted in the indoor nets and then had another running session on the outfield to test the robustness of his left calf. Cook all but ruled him in and also made another important point about England with and without Pietersen.
"Yes, we've played some pretty good cricket without him in the side," he said, perhaps referring to the Ashes victory four years ago and the two drubbings of New Zealand earlier this summer. "Clearly he is a world-class player, let's make no mistake about that. He is a player who can change games very quickly and there are not many like that around.
"But I think this England squad, especially over the last few years has developed enough that the players have also produced some fantastic cricket as well. Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, they are world-class batters as well so we are not as reliant on Kev as we were once a few years ago."
But a batting line-up without Kev in Manchester would still look suspiciously fragile. It would mean James Taylor coming in for his third Test to take his place in an order in which Jonny Bairstow remains unproven and Cook himself could do with a big score.
The other conundrums concern whether to play two spinners – they will not – and whether to reintroduce Chris Tremlett after a gap of 18 months – they will probably not. Tremlett has more chance of breaking into the side than Monty Panesar since the selectors may find the image of him disconcerting Aussie batsmen, with steep bounce too hard to resist.
England have secured the Ashes at Old Trafford before. In 1981 they went ahead 3-1 with one match to play; in 1956 they took an unassailable 2-1 lead (after Jim Laker's 19 for 90) with one match remaining. It was back in 1905 when the ground was in its first flush that Sir Stanley Jackson's overlooked side won the urn and the series quite so early in the season with the honourable captain making a first-day hundred.
The revitalised Old Trafford, at last in its second flush, has neglected to cover any of its stands, old or new, preferring the open-topped approach which might be considered as strange for Manchester. But if England do what they are capable of those non-existent roofs will be raised to the heavens.
Third Ashes Test: Old Trafford details
England A N Cook (capt), J E Root, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, J M Bairstow, M J Prior (wk), G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, T T Bresnan.
Australia M J Clarke (capt), S R Watson, C J L Rogers, U T Khawaja, S P D Smith, D A Warner, B J Haddin (wk), P W Siddle, R J Harris, M A Starc, N M Lyon.
Umpires M Erasmus (SA) & T Hill (NZ).
Pitch report Extremely dry and deliberately so after recent weather. It suits England's means and they will expect spin to play a part once more on a surface that should still offer batsmen reasons to play strokes.
Today Cloudy with sunny spells. Max temp: 26C
Tomorrow Overcast with rain late in the day; 23C
Saturday Mixture of sunshine and showers; 19C
Sunday Staying mainly dry with some sun; 21C
Monday Mainly unsettled, chance of rain; 24C
Odds: Eng 4-5; Draw 5-2; Aus 4-1.
TV Sky Sports Ashes, 10am-7pm. Highlights Channel 5, 7-8pm.
Results so far: First (Trent Bridge): England won by 14 runs; Second (Lord's): England won by 347 runs.
Remaining Tests Fourth: 9-13 August, Riverside; Fifth: 21-25 August, The Oval
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