Even the most optimistic English cricket fan would have struggled to seriously predict that the 2015 Ashes series against Australia would unfold as it has.
Before the latest confrontation in this most historic of cricketing contests England were perceived as the team in development seeking its own identify, the underdogs who had won only 1 of their last 5 Test series, the side who would pluckily give their all but most likely come up short. Australia came as one of the world’s best Test sides, the experienced winners, the outstanding favourites and the team that had whitewashed England down-under 18 months ago. Realism said that it would be mightily hard for England to wrestle back the urn. Rationality suggested that, this time round, a series draw or a narrow and brave defeat would be ruefully good enough.
However, not only have the Ashes been re-gained but they have been done so with consummate and astonishing ease, bar the chastening 405 run loss at Lords, with one whole Test still remaining. They have been won after three comfortable yet thrilling victories against the old enemy at Cardiff, Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, the latter two both inside 3 days. An unassailable 3-1 lead achieved by a combination of English brilliance and Australian incompetence that has left of us in a state of delight and bewilderment. Who would have thought that Alistair Cook, a man many were demanding step down not long ago, would be leading his jubilant side out into a dead-rubber final Test already knowing that the Urn would be his to lift come the end of the match?
A crucial difference between the two sides has been the bowling. On the flat track of Lords Australia, especially Mitchell Johnson, were dominant but over the course of the series England have worked as a superior unit; bowling perfectly for the conditions in a way that Australia could not. When an end needed to be held down while a colleague terrorised batsmen from the other it was. Without a flat wicket and real pace England have been superb at holding the required line and length to grind batsmen down and build the pressure, having the patience to invite the error. Australia have lacked this persistence, leaking more runs as a consequence. England have lured their opponents into a trap, rather than constantly trying to knock them out with one punch. Individually, they stepped up when it mattered most too. Four different bowlers took five-fers across the four matches – Ben Stokes’s 6 for 36 at Trent Bridge were his best ever figures, Finn came back from the wilderness to take 8 at Edgbaston and Anderson’s 6-47 at the same ground were his best ever Ashes figures. In his breakthrough series, Wood has looked a constant threat and took the series-sealing wicket, whilst Stuart Broad’s 8-15, which caused Australia’s batsmen to fold within 93 minutes and 111 balls for the shortest first innings of all time, is already established in Ashes folklore. He has subsequently broken the 300 barrier, becoming England’s 4th highest Test wicket taker.
There were chasms, not just splits, within the England camp last time they faced Australia. It couldn’t have been more different this time around. Australian confidence looked ready to crumble at any moment, with talks of team divides and players looking fragile and worried about their own form and place in the side. Meanwhile England have given the impression of a side thoroughly enjoying playing together and thriving under the challenge of an Ashes series; full of vigour and a lack of fear, with a blend of youth and experienced heads. Credit is due to new head coach Trevor Bayliss for giving his players the freedom to express their talents and allowing them to make decisions without overloading them with information. A relaxed squad with direction and confidence has been vital. The decision to bring in Johnny Bairstow for the out of knock Gary Ballance also paid off, while Australia’s decision to remove the previously impressive Mitchell Marsh for his brother Shaun, which depleted their bowling attack, did not.
It is always hard to adapt to different batting conditions – it’s what makes international series abroad so challenging. Nonetheless, for an Australia side that won in South Africa last year to capitulate like it did was deplorable, their inability to play the moving ball alarming. The centuries from Steve Smith and Chris Rogers aside, batting failures pilled the pressure on their bowlers to retrieve practically impossible situations. The batting from England has by no means been perfect, simply more consistent. With a game to go they have scored only 2 centuries but 7 different players have scored one of the side's 12 fifties. With his place in the team being questioned, Ian Bell hit two of them in the third Test to take England into a series lead. Joe Root's brilliant form has seen him rise to the top of the ICC Player Batting Rankings – his ability to move so effortlessly from one format to another showing a true great in the making. In Test cricket, you have to get through the tough early periods with the new ball to earn the right to exploit the situation when the bowlers have tired and the ball is softer. Again England had the application and patience to do this, Australia again did not. Cook’s men were liberated and dynamic, carrying on from where they left off against New Zealand at the start of the summer.
Do not underestimate the significance of the two captains either. Alistair Cook hasn’t been as prolific as in the West Indies or against New Zealand but his return to form with the bat has been essential. Michael Clarke has been a sensational player but having a captain so lacking in form and confidence can only be detrimental. In the field Cook was positive and proactive. As his ship began to sink, Clarke looked like a captain eager to get to the plank as quickly as possible. Indeed, England’s fielding in general was far superior to their guests. Stokes’s stunning one-handed catch in Australia’s 60-run debacle springs instantly to mind. Their catching has been world class, particularly when Broad ran riot.
Whether Australia re-gain some pride with a win at the Oval or England do what they have never done before in a home Ashes by winning more than 3 Tests, this has been a remarkable a series. The last time England had won an Ashes Test at home by a whole innings was 20 years ago. The 4th Test was the shortest in an Ashes series since 1950 and, excluding draws, the sixth shortest off all time. The third and fourth matches were completed in less than 5 days in total. Records have tumbled, jaws have dropped. The context in which all this has occurred makes it so much more extraordinary. In a series full of twists and turns England’s ability, individually and collectively, to deliver in all areas when it has counted most has been the difference. They have just been too good for what remains a talented Australian side but one in need of the kind of regeneration that England have just gone through. At the start of the cricketing summer, could you really have seen this coming? The Ashes are back with England – and it has been fully deserved.