Thursday, 27 August 2015

Ashes reflections

Thursday, 27 August 2015
This summer's Ashes series was, quite frankly, bizarre. It was a series with the closest of scorelines, but where all five matches were one-sided affairs often decided by the end of the first day. A series that made a mockery of the concept of momentum, the way those first three tests swung so dramatically back and forth. It was a series that won't go down in history as a classic, but that had many moments that will though live long in the memory.

Often it wasn't the highest quality of cricket, matches almost being decided by who was the least bad at the time. Batting from both sides often left a lot to be desired, perhaps having some link to the 'attacking brand of cricket' mantra, that buzz-phrase of the summer. Run rates were high, and innings could often be thrilling - but sides often flirted on the borderline between 'attacking', 'reckless', and 'downright stupidity'. When the positive attitude worked, it really worked. Picture Joe Root's innings on the first day in Cardiff, one of the defining moments of the series: 134 from 166 deliveries after England were 43/3, and very nearly four down after Root was dropped on nought. But picture too, Australia 60 all out at Trent Bridge - an innings when really few balls would have hit the stumps, crying out for someone prepared to leave the ball. The captain was perhaps the worst culprit, wildly swishing at the ball with his team already five down in the first six overs. Often there was the sort of batting that, when it came off, would be praised for an attacking approach - but could be easily criticised as foolish when it often failed.

Every match was one-sided. The first match was probably the one closest to a normal test: a first innings lead of just over 100, and no innings totals that were drastically high or low. But events of the test perhaps had the greatest ripple effect. There was the drop of Root - how would England have fared had they fallen to 43/4? There was the further humiliation of Shane Watson - two LBW decisions unsuccessfully reviewed, and doubt cast into the selectors' minds. It also went a long way to damage the aura surrounding Mitchell Johnson, who had so tormented England in the previous Ashes series. Johnson had his spells where he looked as threatening as ever - particularly as England crumbled at Lord's, and in dismissing Bairstow and Stokes in a single over at Edgbaston - but at Cardiff England won their first battle as he went wicketless in his 25 first innings overs.

That was just the first swing of the seesaw. At Lord's, Australia completely crushed England. The pitch did nothing, and all England could do was watch as Smith and Rogers racked up massive centuries. At the close of the first day, the score 337/1, there was only ever going to be one result. And it wasn't only the toil the bowlers were put through: the batting took a hit too, dismissed for just 103 in the final innings for a crushing 405-run defeat. Johnson was on the rampage again, and Steve Smith was the best batsman in the world. England looked in disarray. The momentum, it was said, was definitely with Australia now.

Maybe it was the week off, giving England a chance to recover and recharge. Or maybe it was just that the idea of momentum was always an illusion, ready to be broken at any moment. But at Edgbaston England were rampant again. Finn was back in the side, putting his nightmares in the past by dismissing Smith and Clarke and going on to take six in the second innings. In the first innings, Anderson was the star with his own six-wicket haul - his intelligence as a bowler showing in identifying seam, rather than swing, as his key weapon. Australia were all out for 136, and England were close to passing the total by the end of the day. Another match with the outcome looking decided after a day, and a three day defeat for Australia. And then for once, form began to stick. I'm still almost in a state of disbelief over the Trent Bridge test. Looking back at the scorecard and seeing 60 all out and bowling figures of 8/15 still just doesn't quite feel real.

And so the Ashes had been won, and with a game to spare. Few had given England much of a chance before the series, and yet in those two tests they had won in the most emphatic of fashions. Still though, there was one game left to be played - a chance for England's victory parade, or a chance for Australia to regain some pride and give a fitting farewell to the retiring Michael Clarke and Chris Rogers. It was Australia who got the ending they had hoped for. Well, perhaps not the one they had hoped for, but a moment of redemption and a positive note on which Clarke and Rogers could say goodbye. Steve Smith (143) in particular piled on the runs in a total of 481, whilst England put in their own dismal display with the bat with a first innings of 149. In their second innings they fared better as captain Cook dug in for 85, but it was Australia's turn to trample on the opposition with Peter Siddle doing the damage in his only match of the series.

The scoreline then, reads 3-2. It's a scoreline that masks the nature of the series, yet seems fair at the same time. They are two sides that seem fairly evenly matched, with one at the beginning of its journey whilst the other feels near its end. Both are teams who are capable of putting in good performances, but obviously both lacking in the consistency to set themselves far apart. Neither side had all eleven players really contributing solidly, if anything Australia looking in many ways as the better side statistically. England proved the best in more traditional English conditions, when the pitch suited their bowlers at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, but when in London Australia were the ones at ease. England though, won the key battles. They won in the way Joe Root responded at Cardiff, and in the way the bowlers came out fighting at Edgbaston after suffering so badly at Lord's. They won in the way they stepped up when Anderson was injured, Stuart Broad taking his mantle and arguably being the player of the series. They held on to their catches, something they hadn't done earlier in the summer, whilst Australia dropped a couple at crucial moments. They won as they went on the rampage in the first half hour at Trent Bridge. They won with their twelfth man, the crowd, getting behind them all the way. 

England won the Ashes. It wasn't always pretty, and they weren't always convincing, but they have their hands on the little urn once more. And while it wasn't always high quality, it brought its share of thrills. There were stunning catches, with Ben Stokes taking one that will certainly never be forgotten; exciting, stroke-playing innings; and one of the very best sights for English fans - bowlers tearing through Australian innings. It was a series too that gave a lot of promise for the future - many things to work on, yes - but also a fair share of hope. It's a victory that feels in many ways like the start of something. There are huge, huge, challenges ahead: this winter sees them travel to the UAE, Pakistan's fortress, where they will face great challenges against spin on unfamiliar surfaces; and then on to South Africa, the top ranked team in the world. For the test team, the latest new era has born its first fruits. But the journey is only just beginning. 

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