Don't tell him it's a dead rubber: Michael Clarke at training. Photo: AP
So-called ''dead'' Test matches are often a purified form of cricketing conflict. The Ashes can feel, for competitors, like a burden. Now that England have retained the urn and won the series, all of that is out of the way and the two teams can go at each other at the Oval, making it personal.
England want to destroy any green shoots of Australian confidence that grew at Old Trafford and Chester-le-Street. They will seek to decapitate Michael Clarke and pull away Australia's last prop of high-class batting, and obliterate those signs of mid-series confidence, putting Australia back at square one for the return series.
For their part, Australia's motivation will be equally pure. After the fourth Test, Clarke was asked if avoiding an unprecedented 4-0 loss motivated him. No, he said, the Oval is all about wanting to win a Test match. The Australians think they are one win away from the return of their self-belief. There's a sense of all or nothing in the contest at the moment and, psychologically, a great deal at stake.
Anyone who has been at the grounds and watched every ball of this series has seen that it has been anything but friendly. Personnel-wise, neither team is anywhere near the heights of previous eras, but both have played disciplined cricket, striving to make the most of their resources. There has been one run-out in the series, few dropped catches, and little given away. It's that same discipline that has kept the simmering antagonism from boiling over. How long can it hold? Often, the last Test match of a series is the one too many.
Every session has been bitterly fought; Anglo-Australian Test cricket works in cycles of revenge. England's current dominance is motivated, in part, by eight consecutive lost series from 1989. Australia's ascendancy, in that period, was driven by the memories of having held the Ashes only once between 1977 and 1989. And so on, to the dawn of time.
The players themselves don't need to have been part of the losing cycle to have that motive. Only Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and James Anderson of the current England squad have lost an Ashes series, while Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath never lost one until 2005. Yet all have been driven by a desire to defeat an opponent that is truly old, and truly an enemy.
Revenge has also licensed questionable tactics. Even patriotic English observers have looked askance at the time-wasting, the cynical use of DRS, and the other shenanigans their team has employed during this series. Justification is found in history: England's tactics are a response to Australia's gamesmanship and bullying during their dominant cycle. That in turn was a response to England's 1980s arrogance; which in turn was a response to Australia's brutality in the mid-1970s. It was ever thus. In the 1940s, Don Bradman was using his fast bowlers to attack the English batsmen in revenge for Bodyline.
And now we return to the Oval, where it all started. The big ground in Surrey is ground zero of Ashes cricket. The first Test match in England was played there in 1880. Two years later, W.G. Grace walked up to the stumps and ran out Sammy Jones while he was gardening the wicket. Fred Spofforth's fury at Grace's action resulted in the famous Australian seven-run win; in revenge, England went to Australia in 1882-83 to recover the ''ashes'' of their own game, which had ''died'' at the Oval.
Sharp practice has been not an English or Australian preserve, but a tool exploited by whichever team has held the upper hand. Professional sport ritualises the dynamics of a particularly nasty schoolyard. The strong don't just overpower the weak, but seek to humiliate them. The weak can fight back and plot revenge and complain, but the Alan Partridge option - ''Make friends with the bully so he bullies someone else'' - is not available on the cricket field.
The mystery is whether dominant teams would still win without the added extras. Would the Australians of the Waugh-Warne era have won so often without their tactics of ''mental disintegration''? Would the great English team of Hammond and Larwood have won without Bodyline? Would the Invincibles and the Chappell teams have still won without their take-no-prisoner tactics? It's a moot point. When cricket teams are dominant, they are also insecure, fearing the moment their rule comes to an end. It's all very Game of Thrones out there. When the ruling group is fearful, it uses every possible means to reinforce its dominance to keep the opposition down. The defeated, for their part, will want to rise more than they have wanted anything; for revenge, for personal satisfaction, and for their future. This is the raw nature of Ashes cricket, every Test match, dead or alive.