While not quite the cricket-mania summer of 2005, the 2015 edition has managed to capture the media’s attention like no series since as England regained the Ashes. The five match series ended 3-2 to the home side, making it the 4th home victory in a row for England. If you follow this blog regularly, you might think it strange that this is my first mention of cricket’s biggest event given my immense love for the sport. There are a few reasons for that, mainly because I was always planning on waiting until the end of the summer to sum up and avoid speaking too soon.
This Ashes victory was as pleasing as it was surprising. Most people had this series down as an easy Australian victory. After all, going into this summer it appeared they had the best batter in the world (Smith), the best captain and the best bowler (Johnson/Starc – take your pick!). Add into the mix a reliable opening partnership, exciting young bowlers and a decent spinner compared to England’s transitional side, full of inexperienced players and a captain under pressure and there seemed to be only one result. I had no confidence in this England side; indeed the only person who seemed to have any was Andrew Flintoff, who has been saying all year we would beat the Aussies. Oh, how glad I am that he was right.
I’ve never watched a test series like the 5 matches we got this summer. I’ve never seen such swings in momentum, I’ve never seen teams dominate as much as the victors in each test did and I’ve never seen a series in which so few class batters have failed to score a century. Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, David Warner and Michael Clarke all failed to reach 3 figures with only Chris Rogers, Steven Smith and Joe Root ever raising their bats. Those stats would imply it was a series for bowlers, which is true to an extent, however Stuart Broad (who was far and away the best bowler for either side) was still going at 3.05 runs per over, the lowest of all the front line bowlers who played more than 1 test match. It was a test series played at a million miles per hour, with neither side able to apply themselves when the going got tough, proven on the morning of the fourth test in Nottingham.
For me, this was a series won not by great play but by poor decisions and brief patches of form. An interesting case study for the latter would be the form of Steven Smith, who went into the series as the number 1 batter in the world. His series average was 56, including 2 centuries. On the face of it, that’s a reasonably good series. However, the stats get ugly when you remove the London test matches. Outside of London, Smith averaged 15 from 6 innings, with a top score of 33 (scored in both innings in Cardiff). Isolating the tests in the Midlands, when you could argue Smith’s batting was needed most, he averaged 6.5 and didn’t score more than 10. It wasn’t just Smith either, Root didn’t play well in London, Broad was our best bowler in Lord’s but that isn’t saying much and then Warner only ever looked decent in the second innings (interesting case study in itself – in the 3 series he’s played against England he averages 24 in the first innings but 69 in the second).
However, maybe this argument is obvious in the extreme. When you have a series dominated by the victors of each test rather than a team in general or not dominated at all then patches of form by each individual player would be the norm. After all, if everyone played well at the same time all the time, the matches would have been closer or the series further apart (depending on how the other team fared). So, using that logic, the exception to the rule is Alastair Cook. Averaging 36 over the course of the 5 matches, that number jumps to 53 when only looking at the 2 tests in London, which England lost. While this is obviously of no note to the series, it highlights the type of player Alastair Cook is – and exactly the type of player lacking on both sides.
Australia lost these Ashes rather than England winning them. That might sound harsh, and is definitely dismissive of Broad’s remarkable morning in Nottingham, however I think more weight needs to be put on Australia’s poor decisions rather than England’s good play. Trent Bridge is a perfect example of poor Aussie decisions. The ball swings in TB, yet panicking due to lack of batting form; Australia dropped a seamer to accommodate a batter. They got bowled out for 60 and then couldn’t pick up 10, let alone 20, England wickets. Their bad decisions started before then, winning the toss at Edgbaston and batting first is logical but this time was a huge mistake. The constant ignoring of Peter Siddle, Australia’s best bowler in English conditions and having already played well for Lancashire this summer, made the selectors look stupid – particularly when he blew England’s batters away in the one appearance he made once the urn was already lost. If Siddle was playing at Edgbaston or Trent Bridge, I’m fairly sure it would have been Australia lifting the urn, not England. And that isn’t even mentioning the drives they continued to play during collapses.
England aren’t immune from the bad decisions either. Continuing with Lyth is a topic I’ll address more next week as it seems nonsensical given how out of form he was and with the Ashes already won. Alastair Cook bowling first on the morning of the Oval test was bizarre, a decision he’ll get away with because by that stage the series was won, but it still shouldn’t be ignored. The difference between the two sides is that Australia’s decisions cost them the urn, England were saved by their bowlers.
I should praise England’s bowlers, as during the back-to-back test matches in the midlands they were superb. Bouncing back from the horrific defeat at Lord’s, four different bowlers got 6 wicket hauls in 4 consecutive innings. James Anderson came to the party in Birmingham, before Steven Finn made a magnificent return to test cricket to seal the victory. At Trent Bridge, Stuart Broad took up responsibility of leading the attack with Anderson injured and delivered with 8 of the 10 wickets which fell on that glorious morning. To top it all off, the weak point of England’s seam attack, Ben Stokes, then delivered a match winning second innings display to bring home the Ashes. England’s batting doesn’t deserve praise, apart from Joe Root and Ian Bell at Edgbaston. Australia’s bowling was inconsistent throughout while only Rogers was consistently a threat with the bat.
Every series has moments where it all could have gone differently, and this is no exception. On the morning of the first test match, England were 43-3 when Joe Root was dropped by Haddin on 0. Root went onto score a century, and eventually was named man of the series. Without Root, England wouldn’t have won in Cardiff and would then have lost at Lord’s. That dropped catch literally changed the fortunes of the whole summer. Right there is why Test Cricket is astounding. Across a potential 25 day stretch of cricket, the victors of the summer was effectively decided by one moment on the rain delayed morning of the first.
We say goodbye to Michael Clarke as a cricketer this summer. The guard of honour at the Oval was the last time he will walk out to bat in a competitive cricket match. Averaging just under 50 in 115 test matches, with 28 centuries and 27 fifties, it’s obvious that he has been one of the greatest batters of modern times, and possibly of all time. I never particularly warmed to him as a person but that isn’t to say that I don’t respect him as a cricketer and I think I speak for all cricket fans when I wish him well for the rest of his life. However, in ways it’s nice to see an Australian captain retire following a poor series in England. How many times have we seen English captains exit stage left following a series in which nothing went right for them? There is a small malicious part of me that is glad to see us do that to an opposing captain.
That being said, I honestly think English cricketers will envy Clarke; there are multiple positives in not having to compete in the harsh spotlight of an Ashes series, simply because they can be cruel beasts. In England in 2013, Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, and Usman Khawaja all played tests for Australia yet none of them have been seen in whites since. All three were described as having potential, indeed Bird and Khawaja have played well in English conditions since, yet they didn’t perform and so have been tossed into the dustbin of Australian cricket. The whitewash down under for England spelled the end of Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and even, despite the small pointless resurgence in the West Indies, Jonathan Trott’s careers. Those three had defined a generation of English cricketers, only to be cast aside before their time in the heat of an Ashes environment.
Players such as Simon Kerrigan, Michael Carberry, Scott Borthwick, Boyd Rankin and even Tim Bresnan have been unceremoniously dumped by England following poor showings against Australia and the pattern doesn’t stop there. It’s likely that following Clarke out of the exit door for Australia after this summer will be Shane Watson and Brad Haddin, again both possibly before their time. Who knows which Australian players will survive this summer? Players retire naturally (as Chris Rogers has), and the sides must evolve for progress to continue however the Ashes is throwing up a habit of pushing sides before they fall, and not always resulting in a positive outcome.
Furthermore, it’s almost like the governing bodies in England and Australia have forgotten that other test teams exist. Every series since the South Africa defeat in 2012 has been billed as a build up to the Ashes for England. No test series seems to have any purpose except to shape and gel players in time for taking on Australia. I’m delighted we’ve won the Ashes, but as soon as that sunk in it didn’t take me long to realise I enjoyed the New Zealand series a hell of a lot more than I enjoyed the Ashes. Against NZ, we were playing a test side on the rise, there was an even contest between bat and ball and they actually showed up to play well in conditions slightly different to their own. It’s for these reasons listed above that I say thank you for the urn Australia but do you mind if we don’t play you for a while? Quite frankly, I’m sick of the sight of Ashes cricket and the constant media assertions that it is the only test series that matters.