The Last Word: Alastair Cook's Ashes team has devalued win over Australia

Playing with such joylessness demonstrates the team's indifference to their responsibilities

Some time today Alastair Cook will conspire in the pretence that he is cradling the terracotta Ashes urn presented to Ivo Bligh, his predecessor as England cricket captain, in 1882. Everyone will overlook the fact it is a cheap prop, one of three official replicas used on such ceremonial occasions.

The subterfuge, harmless and understandable, is uncomfortably symbolic for those who cherish the mystique of the original artefact, which is too fragile and precious to be moved from the Lord's museum. It takes a rare genius to devalue a comprehensive series win over Australia, but England have somehow managed it.

These have been the counterfeit Ashes. With the unforgettable exception of the Trent Bridge Test, the contests have lacked authenticity. The approach of the England management has been myopic and mean spirited. Cook's team have played in a vacuum of joylessness and indifference to their wider responsibilities.

Matt Prior's demand for respect, a dressing-room buzzword without meaning or merit, sums up their isolationism. It is the product of an overwrought, self-regarding culture which has manifested itself most ominously at The Kia Oval, where the attempt to kill the game degenerated into a parody of professionalism.

Should Prior wish to investigate the impact of genuine disrespect, he should examine the apologetic body language of Simon Kerrigan. The manner in which the debutant spinner was marginalised following the most vivid, debilitating attack of nerves seen in international sport for many years, was disrespectful bordering on disgraceful.

There has been much to admire about a regime whose tone is set by head coach Andy Flower. He is a man of immense integrity, whose ascetic methodology rarely factors in popularity. Yet such strength is a weakness because of the siege mentality it generates.

Stuart Broad deleted a series of late-night tweets on Friday, deriding those he felt were not "true fans", without erasing the suspicion that he, too, has an unhealthy sense of entitlement. The prissy response of the ECB to the admittedly crass comments of Darren Lehmann regarding the England all-rounder hints at a lack of proportionality.

By condemning "incitement" and pledging to take "all necessary steps" to ensure Broad's safety in the return Ashes series in Australia this winter, they provided unnecessary encouragement to louts and attention seekers.

It was excessive given the widespread condemnation the Australia coach had already received from his natural constituency.

The argument was won when Ian Chappell, whose approach to English cricket and cricketers resembles that of a dog to a lamppost, accused Lehmann of "hypocrisy". The coach will doubtlessly contemplate the perils of his informal, outspoken management style.

There is, though, an affecting humanity to his squad, best summed up by an incident involving ex-pat Australian Jason Donald and his eight-year-old son Alec before the start of play on the first day at the Oval.

Ed Cowan, the invisible man of the Australian tour party, noticed the boy being pushed to the back of a scrum of autograph seekers. He beckoned security men to allow him on to the field, and gave him his batting gloves. "Mate," he told him," we are three-nil down in England, so you deserve these."

England's players have similar instincts, but seem more guarded. That is surprising given Cook's grounded nature. Once the formalities are completed today he will doubtless pop into our village pub in his wellies to meet his mates from the Young Farmers' Club. He will finally be allowed to be himself.

He was distraught earlier this summer when a sheepdog he had reared, after chasing a stray sheep into the road, was knocked down and killed. That vignette is more representative of him than images of the poker-faced, slightly careworn figure who has led England back to second place in the international rankings.

Admirable, in a professional sense, but today will not feel like a victory parade. One word of warning, Alastair: keep winning.

Ear story sounds a warning to Bale

Gareth Bale was given a glimpse into his future in a fitting setting, Pinewood Film Studios, where he recorded his first major TV advertisement on the day the England squad left for their ill-starred 2010 World Cup campaign.

Bale was quiet, a little wide-eyed and intent on following advice to study the professionalism of his co-star Michael Owen. The prospect of him becoming the world's most expensive footballer seemed ridiculously remote, but there was something distinctive about him. He was measured in a manic world.

He will need such inner certainty in the coming days, when the reality of Real Madrid will consume him. Owen left few traces at the Bernabeu; Bale will launch a marketing offensive in Asia, and the Gulf.

His life will change irrevocably. This week's tittle-tattle about an operation to pin back his ears was a taste of things to come. The prominence given to what had been an open, inconsequential secret was telling. At 24 the Real opportunity has probably come a season too soon. But the chance, like the challenge, is unique. Will he recoil from its magnitude, or respond, like Cristiano Ronaldo?

Bale is easy to under-estimate, difficult to deny.

The real one

The Happy One has already morphed into the Disingenuous One. The Ethical One was merely a figment of Jose Mourinho's fertile imagination. His return to Old Trafford tomorrow will set the tone for the season. This might be a minority view, but I've a hunch David Moyes will prove to be The Authentic One

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