Gunning for greatness: Cook knows that clinching Ashes now will prove England's class
The time has come, the moment for England to put in a commanding performance at Old Trafford and retain the Ashes here and now.
A draw would be enough, of course — and with Manchester’s climate it would be dangerous to assume that we are in for five full days — but England need to demonstrate they have the killer instinct common to all truly great sides.
It was never a problem for Australia at their best to turn the screw on the Poms when they were at their hapless worst. England will never have a better chance of sealing the biggest series of them all with two to play.
Gone all the way: Kevin Pietersen was back firing in England's net session
The series so far
First Test Trent Bridge
England won by 14 runs
Second Test Lord’s
England won by 347 runs
Third Test Old Trafford
Fourth Test Durham
Fifth Test The Oval
There was a timely reminder at Old Trafford on Wednesday of how things used to be, as the big screen played out highlights of the 2006-07 series when Ricky Ponting led Australia ruthlessly to a 5-0 whitewash.
If it was part of a ploy by Lancashire to make sure England have no compassionate thoughts now the boot is on the other foot, it was a cunning one. Alastair Cook noticed it and no doubt muttered ‘never again’.
England know they have been in this position before, when the Ashes were tantalisingly within reach only for them to miss their moment — at Headingley in 2009 and at Perth on the last tour of Australia.
Neither defeat was enough to deny ultimate victory by 2-1 and then 3-1. But a setback would feel disappointing now England have put themselves in the perfect position for a whitewash by winning the first two Tests.
Captain's turn: Alastair Cook will be hoping to get in the runs at Old Trafford
They would not just clinch this Ashes series by winning this third Investec Test, either. By making sure they do not give Australia the remotest sniff of a chance at Old Trafford, they would continue undermining Michael Clarke’s prospects for the return series this winter, too.
England began what Steve Waugh used to call the ‘mental disintegration’ of their opponents — and how glorious it is that we are using that term to describe what is happening to Australia rather than England — by batting them into the ground at Lord’s rather than enforcing the follow-on and going for a quick kill.
By forcing Australia to bowl until England were out of sight on the fourth morning, they claimed their first physical casualty in these back-to-back series, with James Pattinson ruled out of this series and maybe the return as well.
Now England have to try to claim the biggest Australian scalp of all. Cook insisted he was not thinking about the implications for Clarke should England win now, but he will know there would be intense scrutiny on the Australian captain if it becomes seven successive Test defeats.
Legends: Shane Warne having a chuckle with national selector Rodney Marsh
England have been far from at their best in this series. The first thing they must do in that quest for ruthlessness is ensure they make a better fist of compiling the dominating first-innings total that has often eluded them.
None of Cook, Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior or the fit-again Kevin Pietersen has made a proper impact on this series yet and it is up to them to join Ian Bell and Joe Root in compiling the centuries that will take England to 400-plus.
Then it would be over to match-winning bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann to go about their work with big runs behind them — as they were able to do in that second innings at Lord’s when only the tail held them up.
In? Monty Panesar still has a chance of appearing for England on what is expected to be a turning wicket
It would be fitting if Old Trafford, a truly historic Ashes venue, was the scene of England’s triumph because Lancashire have worked very hard to get to the point where they can stage this Test after all their struggles.
It would be stretching a point to say that this famous old ground now looks easy on the eye after the rebuilding work that has lifted the capacity to 26,000, but it would not be Old Trafford if it did not have the odd rough edge.
The pitch here could hardly be described as pretty, either. But England will have no qualms about that if, as seems certain, it again provides spin at an early stage for Swann and reverse swing for Anderson and Co.
Australians of a certain age will always tell you that the Old Trafford pitch of 1956 was doctored to favour Jim Laker and Tony Lock and there are signs that Clarke and his side believe they are falling into a spinning trap now.
History: Jim Laker (front) got his ten-wicket haul against Australia at Old Trafford
Australia seem to think that Monty Panesar will play — it will be a big surprise if he does — while Brad Haddin said that the surface appeared ‘burnt’. That may not be enough to earn Ashton Agar a reprieve alongside the recalled Nathan Lyon but clearly the seed has been sown that a dry wicket means danger for Australia. It should certainly mean Swann enjoys himself again.
Geoff Miller, the national selector, had a long look at Panesar bowling in the indoor nets on Wednesday while Matt Prior has been having added keeping practice against spin — so a two-spinner attack should not be totally ruled out.
Premature: Phil Hughes and David Warner looking jovial during Australia training
Equally, Chris Tremlett has again bowled well in the nets these last two days, bringing him to the brink of a recall that may come today if England remember the success Steve Harmison used to have here.
Yet the chances are England will be unchanged and why not? They are on the verge of their third successive Ashes win and want to be in a position to celebrate it by Monday. Now they just need to apply those finishing touches.
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