Forget Barbie vs Oppenheimer, this final Ashes Test was meant to be the box-office event of the summer before the Manchester rain cruelly torpedoed England’s hopes of setting up a winner-takes-all decider.
Instead, on the eve of this series finale we were treated to the sound of “Barbie Girl” – as if England hadn’t had enough Aqua – interrupting the start of Ben Stokes’ pre-match media conference at the Oval.
The culprit, tapping into the zeitgeist by hitting play in the gym on the mezzanine level that sits above the indoor nets where Stokes was sitting, was Mark Wood, a man who lay on the dressing-room floor pretending to be a dog during his team’s third-Test victory against Australia in Leeds.
Wood was at it again a few minutes later, blasting out a few bars of “The Imperial March” from Star Wars as Stokes attempted to rationalise what victory this week would mean for his team.
Yet rather than gravitate towards the dark side after the heartbreak of that drawn fourth Test that left Australia 2-1 ahead with one to play, the antics of Wood, England’s practical joker in chief, told of a group of players who have brushed off their disappointment at failing to regain the Ashes and who are determined to end their Test summer on a high.
Victory this week would not only maintain England’s undefeated run of series since Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum took charge at the start of last summer but deny Australia a first away Ashes series win since 2001.
The stakes aren’t as high as they might have been had the weather allowed England to hammer home their dominance in Manchester last week. Yet there’s enough for both teams to lift themselves for one last hurrah in a series that has served up more drama and plot twists than your average Hollywood blockbuster.
Stokes admitted he was “emotionless” after the washout on the final day at Old Trafford. Yet could his team take the momentum from that performance, which saw England display controlled brutality as they piled up 592 in their only innings, be taken into this final Test?
“It’s a new game and things can play out differently,” Stokes said. “We just need to go out there and put the same amount of pressure onto Australia. I thought the way we did that at Old Trafford, Australia didn’t have an answer, particularly when we had the bat in hand.
“It was great viewing, watching the lads go about their business with the bat. But it’s a completely different game, and we’ll just have to start all over again.”
Wood, aside from his pranks, has been a transformational presence in this series for England from the moment he produced an electrifying first spell in that third Test that saw him reach 96.5 miles per hour.
His value cannot be underestimated and asked what the fast bowler brings to his team, Stokes replied: “He just messes around with the music! He brings amazing energy to the group, he’s a very, very funny man, always bouncing around and someone who will keep going and going and going.
“If he’s sore or tired, he just throws everything he has at the opposition whenever I throw him the ball. He’s great to have around the team.
“He is playing now but even when he’s not he offers so much to the group. He’s a really, really good team man. His skillset with the ball is something every team wants.”
Wood is part of an unchanged England XI for the Oval, with James Anderson retained after Stokes and McCullum opted for experience ahead of the speed of another quick bowler in Josh Tongue.
The path of least resistance probably makes sense, although Anderson has a lot to do to justify his selection after a return of four wickets at 76.75 so far in this series.
Keeping things simple and relaxed has been a key tenet to England’s renaissance in the Bazball era and you imagine their preparations this week would have been exactly the same even if this magnificent series was locked at 2-2.
Ashes 5th Test
Venue: The Oval
Dates: 27-31 July
Start time: 11am
England team (confirmed): BM Duckett, Z Crawley, HC Brook, JE Root, JM Bairstow (wkt), BA Stokes (capt), MM Ali, CR Woakes, MA Wood, OE Robinson, SCJ Broad
Australia team (probable): DA Warner, UT Khawaja, M Labuschagne, SD Smith, TM Head, CD Green, AT Carey (wkt), MA Starc, PJ Cummins (capt), JR Hazlewood, TR Murphy
Umpires: K Dharmasena (LK), J Wilson (WI)
TV umpire: N Menon (IN)
Pitch: Tinge of green and dry, meaning there should be plenty of runs in it but helpful to spin
Weather: 22 degrees with thundery showers
TV: Sky Sports Main Event/Cricket from 10am
And it can only help that the team are able to see the lighter side of things this week – illustrated not only by Wood but Travis’ “Why Does it Always Rain on Me” blasting out of the “BazBox” ghetto blaster that accompanies all net sessions.
The pressure to perform is still there, and there will be pressure this week. But if England, so wasteful during the first two Tests, show the same measure of control they had last week, they will have a good chance of victory.
For many players on both teams, possibly including Wood at 33, this will be the last Ashes Test of their careers. Let’s enjoy them and this wonderful series while we still can.