Alastair Cook is closer than ever to lifting the urn that will confirm England's third consecutive Ashes series victory, but he made it clear on the eve of the fifth Test that his team are focused on inflicting a historic humiliation on Australia.
As Cook has arrived at The Oval for practice in the past two days he has been greeted by the large photographs of Michael Vaughan in 2005, and Andrew Strauss four years ago, after victories that sparked wild celebrations in Kennington. The England captain, though, underlined Stuart Broad's description of this team as "un-English" in their ruthless desire to win at all costs as he spoke of their ambition to record a 4-0 scoreline rather than their imminent Ashes success.
"We have a lot of record-breakers in this team and the chance to add another little notch is a great motivation," said Cook, who is already guaranteed his fourth win in five series as captain, and is aiming for a 10th win in 17 Tests having lost only once thus far.
"To win the Ashes 4-0 has never been done before, so that is our motivation as a side. With 4-0 you've achieved something very special."
Cook also conceded for the first time that inflicting further punishment on Australia could only benefit England when the return series begins in Brisbane 88 days after this Oval match is scheduled to end. "When you get to Australia you'll be saying what's gone is gone and has no relevance to that first hour in Brisbane," he added. "But sitting here now those little things can make a difference. If we can continue to put Australia under pressure in certain areas of their play we know that can hopefully count when we go there."
So there will be no experimentation, and instead a fresh test for Australia's beleaguered batsmen if, as expected, Chris Tremlett replaces the injured Tim Bresnan in England's attack.
Australia have already confirmed two changes, one of which smacks slightly of illogical panic, as they have responded to their batting problems by omitting a struggling specialist, Usman Khawaja, and selecting an uncapped Tasmanian all-rounder, James Faulkner, with Shane Watson bumped back up from the lower middle-order to come in at No3.
Their captain, Michael Clarke, stressed on several occasions that it was attitude as much as ability that persuaded the selectors to take a punt on Faulkner. "He is a wonderful talent but he's got the toughness to mix it with any opposition at the highest level," he said of the 23-year-old, who received an official fine in one of his first one-day international appearances for the enthusiasm with which he celebrated the dismissal of Chris Gayle. "He is a fighter and a competitor. I think he is the right character for this team."
Clarke made no effort to disguise the importance of this game to his team, or to him personally, as he aims to avoid the ignominy of going down as the captain of statistically Australia's worst Ashes tourists. "There are a number of reasons we need to have success in this Test match," he said. "We've lost the series but we still have a lot to gain."
Asked directly whether a 4-0 defeat might make him consider his own position, he seemed to rule out standing down. "I've thought long and hard about what has occurred in this series ... it is a tough challenge as a captain when you don't get the results you want. And it just inspires you to try and become better as a player and leader."
Cook has no such concerns. He offered some encouragement to Monty Panesar, who began his bid to reclaim lost ground in the battle for winter tour places by bowling for Essex against Northamptonshire in Colchester on Tuesday. "I've spoken to him – he actually rang me," said the captain, stressing he played no part in luring Panesar to his own county at Chelmsford.
"Not the most pleasant phone call for him to make – to the England captain to apologise. That shows he knows he's done wrong and let the England shirt down a bit. But he recognises he needs a bit of a change in his life, which I think is always the first step. The bottom line is that we need Monty back bowling as well as he can bowl. The way back is wickets and he knows that. We know he has that pedigree in international cricket."
Then Cook's thoughts returned to the dressing room, with its pictures of Ashes triumphs past. "It is quite nice to have that relaxed feeling, that it's not the be all and end all," he said, comparing the current 3-0 cushion to the knife-edge on which the last two home series balanced ahead of The Oval climax. "When you come to The Oval, every day you walk past pictures of Vaughan and Strauss doing it. So knowing I will be the next captain to do it brings a smile to the face."
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