So in the ultimate analysis Ben Stokes' Headingley heroics only delayed the inevitable. Australia should have made sure of retaining the Ashes on August 25 but for a once in a lifetime knock by the star England all rounder. It is just that the Aussies finally retained the urn two weeks later.

From the point of view of the Ashes the contest is over and that is a pity for the series more than once looked like it would go down to the wire like it did during the memorable series of 2005 with which this was frequently being compared. In the event it has fallen short but there has been a lot of good cricket seen over the four Tests. And let us not forget that England can still draw level 2-2 with a victory at the Oval.

This is far from impossible for it is still a contest between two evenly matched teams. Yes, Steve Smith is the towering figure among the players on both sides and it is interesting to note that England won at Headingley when Smith did not play. But then it should not be forgotten that England had the better of the drawn second Test at Lord’s. Of course a keen contest was always on the cards when the teams started out as No 4 and No 5 in the ICC rankings.

The manner in which England fought doggedly in a bid to save the fourth Test was commendable. But the way Australia came back to win at Old Trafford following the heartbreak at Headingley was equally admirable. It is not easy to recover so quickly after a defeat like that and it showed Aussie resilience at its best.

It was the first time Australia retained the Ashes in a series in England since 2001. They had lost in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2015 and so it will be doubly memorable whatever happens at the Oval. And whichever way one analyses the triumph the story has to begin with Smith and his Bradmanesque run of scores which have had an overbearing influence on the series. At the height of Bjorn Borg’s genius when the Swede won five successive Wimbledon titles and six French Open titles his opponents said ''we play tennis, he plays something else.’’ Paraphrasing this the England team members could well be saying ''we play cricket, Steve Smith plays something else.’’

Indeed Smith is just breaking records left, right and centre. And when it comes to temperament Smith is in a league of his own. Anyone who has been through what he has been through the last 18 months thanks to his role in the ball tampering controversy – facing a one year ban, being the subject of ridicule and abuse, being emotionally scarred by events underlined by his weeping openly at a press conference in the wake of the scandal – would have been a mental wreck. Not Smith who is obviously made of sterner stuff. He quickly put all that happened behind him, concentrated fully on making his comeback a success. Mentally and physically he prepared feverishly for the Ashes series and doing really well became an obsession with him. The result of all this is what one has seen in the Ashes series.

As if what he had not been through was not enough Smith has had to encounter hostile spectators who have taunted and booed him throughout the series calling him all sorts of names and holding taunting banners associated with the ball tampering issue. But Smith has remained immersed in his cocoon and is totally impervious to the surroundings and seemingly with blinkers and ear plugs has just batted on and on and on concentrating only on the job ahead – to see that Australia retain the Ashes. Not even a concussion courtesy a Jofra Archer delivery at Lord’s which resulted in him missing the third Test has slowed him down. And by the fourth Test the booing for Smith had turned to cheers.

There was always going to be additional pressure on Smith coming back to the Test arena after a year long ban. After all he was the captain when the ball tampering incident occurred. But his hunger for success knows no bounds, his appetite for big scores shows no signs of abating. He is in the zone and no other batsman in the contemporary game can match him when it comes to Test cricket. HIs unusual technique, his powers of dedication, determination and concentration and his ideal temperament which sees him perform at his best when the chips are down all combine to make him a formidable opponent and the most difficult batsman to bowl to in the contemporary game. With all the heroics performed by the bowling trio of Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Smith has certainly been the X-factor behind Australia’s retention of the Ashes.