England are on the verge of making history. Defeat Australia at The Kia Oval this week and it will be the first time they have won four Tests at home in an Ashes series.
But even if Alastair Cook’s men succeed, it will not be the only thing this summer’s contest will be remembered for.
Controversies over umpiring have meant talk has often centred on whether someone should have been out rather than on a fluid century from Ian Bell or a devastating spell of bowling from Stuart Broad.
The decision review system was supposed to eradicate mistakes but that has been far from the case.
With eight of the 12 ICC umpires being either English or Australian, it is claimed the best umpires are not officiating and Matt Prior has even suggested that the system of neutral officials should be scrapped.
Cook, though, believes there is no reason to think the problems here are part of a wider issue.
“It’s pretty irrelevant to me, who umpires the game,” says England’s captain. “All the 12 umpires go through a strict protocol to become an ICC elite umpire. We’ve had all these umpires before and they were fantastic. I don’t know what’s happened in this series, why so many things have gone wrong.
“The Ashes always throws up something and, in this series, it’s the umpires and DRS. It hasn’t helped that, quite a few times, there has been human error.”
One case was Aleem Dar’s mistake in the First Test giving Broad not out after he nicked a catch to first slip. Australia, having run out of DRS appeals, were helpless and the all-rounder did not walk. Should he have?
“No,” says Cook firmly. “There have been a number of times throughout the series that other players, on either side, haven’t walked. At the end of the same Test, with Australia wanting 14, Brad [Haddin] nicked it and didn’t walk. I have absolutely no qualms about it. It’s just the way the game is. You play it tough and you play it hard. You wait for the umpire to make a decision and then you respect that decision.
Debate: Broad caused a stir by not ‘giving himself out’“The umpire is always going to make mistakes. But DRS is there to try and increase the number of right decisions. It needs to operate better than it has been doing in this series. But, in the other series we’ve played in, it has worked absolutely fine.”
We are talking at the Royal Ascot Cricket Club where, as part of his sponsorship obligations, Cook has come to give a coaching session.
Oblivious of his celebrity status, Cook is in the clubhouse playing darts. He laughs at suggestions that he could be another Phil Taylor. It is when I suggest that the Fifth Test, which starts tomorrow, should present no problems that the iron will of the England captain emerges.
“Obviously it has been a good few weeks but, no, it is not true we don’t have to worry about winning at The Oval,” he says. “It’s an important Test match that we will try to win.”
As for the team’s chances of a landmark triumph, Cook says: “That history doesn’t weigh on me. Playing for England and cricket pressure in general weighs on you. We’ve an opportunity to win 4-0 and I want to grab it.”
And, in grabbing it, Cook will pay no attention to Shane Warne’s devastating put down of his captaincy that: “England deserved to win the series but it was no thanks to Cook.”
When I remind him, the skipper, fighting a yawn, responds: “Yeah, it is media talk. Obviously, he’s very heavily involved with Australia as part of their coaching set-up. What’s important is what people think of me as captain inside the dressing room, whether it’s Andy Flower, Kevin Pietersen or the [other] guys. What I can say is we’ve got a pretty good record and, hopefully, that can continue.”
Warne’s argument was that England clinched the series at Durham because Cook’s captaincy was rescued by advice from coach Flower at tea on the fourth day which turned a losing position around. Cook says: “[Before tea] Australia played very well and we didn’t quite get it right. At tea time, we did have a sit down and a discussion because we knew that, if we had lost that session, we wouldn’t have won the Test. But those discussions have to stay in the dressing room because that’s the way our team operate.”
Crucial to that comeback was Broad’s best bowling of the series: six for 20 in 45 balls. So can Cook sense when Broad will turn it on?
“Sometimes I know but he’s bowled pretty well the whole series without quite getting the rewards. He got them at Durham. One of Broady’s greatest qualities is that, when he gets it totally right, he’s almost unplayable.
“Obviously, we’re lucky with the bowlers we’ve got at the moment. Graeme Swann has 250 wickets, Jimmy Anderson has got 300 and Broad has just got 200.
Pace man: Cook is glad to be playing in the same era as AndersonThat’s a lot of wickets to have in a bowling attack. To know you have that experience and knowledge at Test level is invaluable.”
Cook is not at all worried that Anderson, after match figures of 10 for 158 in the opening Test victory at Trent Bridge, has taken a back seat. “He will admit in the last two games he hasn’t quite got it right. You can’t play to your absolute best every single time — that’s not what sport is.
“He’s a mighty fine bowler and I’m very glad I’m playing in the same era as he is. I am lucky that we’ve got players who will go down as the best that England have produced.”
Prominent among them is Bell, the stand-out batsman of the series. But what puzzles Cook is that critics are surprised by his team-mate’s consistency in this series: three centuries in four Tests. “It [the criticism] was pretty harsh. But, for some reason, it has always been thrown at him. The bottom line is that he’s a world-class player. This series has projected him to the status he deserves. Every one of his 500 runs has been when the team needed it most. Belly has dug us out of trouble.”
Much of that trouble has been due to Cook’s lack of success: 218 runs, averaging 21.78. So why has the captain, whose batting in December led England to their first series victory in India since 1984, failed? Is it the extra pressure of leading in a home Ashes series?
“Sometimes you have to give the right credit to the Australian bowling,” he says. “Also it is a little bit the fate of an opening batsman, isn’t it? We would love to score runs every single time we walked out to bat in every single series we play. Unless you are Don Bradman that doesn’t happen. I know that my past record suggests that, hopefully, I will come good again. It will be nice to score a few at The Oval.”
Should England wrap up a 4-0 win there, Cook does not want the country to think this winter’s contest Down Under will be a formality.
“Easy to win the next Ashes? I would be very surprised if anyone thinks that. Australia played very well against South Africa and probably should have won that series. They are a good side.
“They’ve got a very good bowling attack and some good batters. We know how tough it will be. To win out there will be another good achievement.”
Such realism means he never agreed with Ian Botham’s forecast of a 5-0 whitewash. Nor does he agree with Glenn McGrath’s view that England have now acquired some of the old Baggy Green winning mentality.
“It’s very easy when you’re not inside the battle to make remarks like that. I don’t like comparing ourselves to any other team. What I do know is that now we’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of class and a lot of the guys have all been through a lot of situations.
“We know how to dig ourselves out of holes and how to win when we get on top. I’m very confident in our ability to play the situation a lot better than we have done in the past.”