To see the 98-seater Press box jam-packed for what was only a training session watched by a healthy smattering of fans and autograph hunters shows that while England may have retained the Ashes, today’s fourth Test of the series remains a big deal. A very big deal.
What the home fans really want to see in the North East’s first England-Australia Test is one of their own striding out with the Three Lions on his cap.
If they and Graham Onions are to get their wish, the Gateshead-born fast bowler will have to earn it. Sentiment will definitely not be a factor on the teamsheet Alastair Cook hands over at this morning’s toss.
“Graham has done extremely well again in county cricket,” understates England’s captain when asked about the Durham player’s chances.
“He has pushed his name right into the squad. He was left out of the last game but he went back to Durham and has taken a lot of wickets in four-day cricket. He is doing everything we asked of him.”
Onions was named in the first two Test squads of the series but left out at Old Trafford. It means his last international appearance was against the West Indies at Edgbaston last summer, a little bit of a freebie as England rested bowlers for a dead rubber. Two-nil up with two to play, there is nothing dead about this one.
“In our eyes the series is still very much alive,” says Cook. “We set out to win the series, not just retain the Ashes. That’s still the goal. So we will try to pick the best eleven as we always do.”
His opposite number, Michael Clarke, is just as desperate to win. The Manchester rain left Australia with nothing to show from a much-improved showing but wins here and at The Oval will earn a series draw, and have an important knock-on effect on the next five-match series, starting at the Gabba on November 21. “I’m not personally looking that far ahead,” Clarke insists. “But I’m sure there are people in our high performance team that will have an eye on the future. I’m sure the selectors are thinking about that. Darren (Lehmann, Australia’s coach) is thinking about that.
“As a player, I don’t think you can afford to, you need to be really focused on what’s in front of you. As soon as you take one eye off the ball, you find a way to not even be part of that series. As a playing group, we need to stay focused on what’s in front of us.”
Clarke’s side arrived in the North East a far more formidable prospect than they were a week ago. “I don’t know if we have got any more (momentum) than England,” Clarke reflects. “England will be taking the positives that they’re 2-0 up and can’t lose the Ashes (which, as holders, mean they keep them).
“I think the way we played in Manchester has certainly built momentum for us. Plenty of confidence is growing in our team, which is a really nice thing to have, especially after losing the first two Test matches. As a batsman you start on zero and as a bowler you haven’t got a wicket. It’s about consistent performances and being able to back up what we did in Manchester.”
When it comes to Ashes cricket, this most northerly outpost might be new territory, but it is not unfamiliar. The sides met here in a one-day last year.
England have been coming for 13 years which have witnessed nine wins – including six on the trot before South Africa ended the sequence in last September’s Twenty20. Kevin Pietersen smashed his first switch-hit here, and the last Chester-le-Street Test saw Jimmy Anderson claim nine wickets and Cook yet another 100.
No wonder seeing the ground again – spruced up for the big occasion and with a new stand in use for the first time – brought a smile to the England captain’s face.
“The ground looks fantastic,” he says. “That big stand in front of the castle looks really good. It should be a good atmosphere here. We’ve had good success when we have played up here as a team in Test and one-day cricket. The lads are really looking forward to it. It’s good a different ground has had an opportunity to host an Ashes Test match. There’s excitement as always around the cricket and I’m sure the next five days will be no different.”
Those interested in sampling the excitement first-hand might be interested to note tickets are still available for the last two days. Runs have been unusually hard to come by for Cook in his first Ashes series as captain. So dominant in 2010-11, he has just 604 runs this series, at an average of under 25.
“At the top of the order your job is to score runs,” he shrugs. “I haven’t done as well as I would have liked in the series. I have had a couple of starts and if I can convert that to bigger runs it changes. I have been working hard on my game like I always do.”