This wasn’t how it was supposed to end, not for the greatest Ashes contest in years. It should have been a sun soaked final day at The Oval, the series perfectly tied at 2-2, the urn in the balance.
Instead, we got a cold, dark day at Old Trafford, the rain pouring down while England’s players played keepy-uppies on the outfield in a vain attempt to convince the umpires that conditions were fit for play. Even Pat Cummins looked flat in his post match press conference. After all, this isn’t how anyone wants to win a trophy.
This Ashes series, more than most, deserved a better denouement. Across four enthralling Test matches the pendulum has swung back and forth between the teams more wildly than Peter Snow’s election night Swingometer. The outcome of the first three Tests was in the balance right to the end. This one would, in all probability have ended in a crushing English victory but given the fluctuating nature of the series, it’s not inconceivable Marnus Labuschagne’s century and further resistance from Shaun Marsh and the tail could have given England a tricky fourth innings target had the rain held off.
Both teams will have wounds to lick heading to The Oval in three days’ time. For Australia it is mission half accomplished. Pat Cummins stated target before the series began was to become the first Australian team in 22 years to win an Ashes series in England. The urn may be returning on a Quantas flight Down Under, but the ultimate aim is yet to be achieved. Four years ago, the tourists arguably over celebrated retaining the Ashes at Old Trafford and, after Tim Paine inserted the hosts on a benign Oval surface, produced a flat performance that allowed England to tie the series at 2-2. There will be no such complacency from Cummins men this time. The skipper made that clear in his post match press conference yesterday. There will be “a pat on the back but no celebration”.
Cummins also knows that while his team may have won the Ashes urn it is England who have won hearts and minds. The Australian approach has been defensive bordering on negative throughout the series. At Old Trafford they appeared to be waiting for the rain to come from ball one. Their tactics have worked but only just. Cummins is an impressive leader but his reputation for calm captaincy has taken a hit from England’s assault in their first innings in Manchester. The Australians lost their heads as first Zak Crawley and then Jonny Bairstow took their attack apart in the manner that England fans had waited for all series. The Australians got out of jail free in Manchester and they know it. Much improvement will be required in South London.
As for England, there are more questions than answers in the minds of everyone except Ben Stokes. When asked by both Mike Atherton on Sky Sports and Jonathan Agnew on the BBC whether he had any regrets about any of his decision making over the course of the series he answered with one simple word each time, “No”. There were no thoughts of introspection or learning from mistakes. That is not how this regime does things, at least publicly. Privately, there must be those in the dressing room who realise that, with a little bit more common sense in the first two games, England could be 3-0 up by now and the rain that teemed down at Old Trafford yesterday would have been an irrelevance.
It is hard to take Stokes’ words at face value when it is obvious how his team’s approach changed after the chaos of Lords. From Headingley onwards they started playing “Bazball with brains” and the difference in outcomes was stark. England still played attacking cricket, Zak Crawley scored an 93 ball century at Old Trafford, but they took the time to read the state of the game and play accordingly. At Headingley, with a sizeable first innings deficit staring them in the face and realising that preserving wickets was essential, Stokes and Moeen Ali proceeded at just over 2 runs an over for a while before the skipper pressed the accelerator when left with the tail. Even after Crawley’s brilliance on Thursday, Stokes and Harry Brook reigned their shots in and played for the close, recognising that, if they were both still there the following morning, the opportunity to attack the Australians would present itself.
Oh for such clear thinking when Nathon Lyon limped off injured on the second afternoon at Lord’s and England managed to squander a position of 188-1 against a depleted attack. Even more so on the first day at Edgbaston when Stokes’ bravado fuelled declaration left Joe Root stranded on 118 not out and denied England the opportunity to lay down a significant marker for the series against Australia’s bowlers.
Whatever they say in public, England’s players will know this series has been a huge missed opportunity. Stokes and Brendon McCullum deserve great credit for how they have transformed English cricket and made the public fall in love with the national team again. For a beautiful few weeks, the summer game has dominated the front and back pages of the papers again, cricket bats have replaced footballs in English parks and gardens and those of us who love the game all year round have basked in the happy glow of friends and family finally realising why we devote so much of our time to this slightly eccentric, often frustrating but ultimately wonderful pastime. The game owes a debt of gratitude to Brendon and Ben for that.
We all remember the painful, stultifying inertia of the latter days of Joe Root and Chris Silverwood’s partnership as two decent men struggled to deal with arguably the toughest set of circumstances ever thrown at a captain and coach of a cricket team. Stokes and McCullum, by contrast, have been very lucky. They have been blessed with a perfect storm of the end of the Covid pandemic and with it the dreadful days of players being locked in hotel rooms for whole series, shoving endless Lateral Flow tests down their throats coupled with the return of full stadiums and joyous fans excited to watch live sport again. This sense of freedom dovetails perfectly with their approach to the game and helps to explain why England have won 14 out of 17 Tests under their leadership. It has at times, been a joy to watch.
However, when it really mattered most, in the white heat of an Ashes battle, they have lacked the cool headedness that was needed. This is a vintage Australian team, yes, but they have not produced vintage performances. All they have really done is keep clear heads and stay calm in the key moments and allow English impetuosity to do the rest.
The Ashes has been there for the taking this summer. England have beaten themselves and that is what will really hurt. No amount of feelgood vibes or Bazball exuberance will make up for that.