SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 18 SEPTEMBER, 2019
The Ashes See-Saw Sneaks in a Drawn Duel
Australia retain the urn, but unconvincingly
England’s Ashes went much like their campaign in the World Cup, with one key exception. England did not give themselves a chance of winning the Ashes, snaring themselves into playing catchup after beginning promisingly enough.
Australia, on the other hand, despite believing they were in the ascendancy throughout, have a lot to account for and address when the dust settles over the retention of the Ashes urn.
What does a captain do when the opposition batsmen do not yield, and stand in the way of the hosts desperate to square the series and salvage respectability once more?
After yet another frustrating passage of play when Australia managed to thwart England’s attempts to nail the coffin despite making inroads, Joe Root brought himself on. Almost immediately the decision proved eventful as he broke Matthew Wade’s 117 run innings that was beginning to weigh on an English team looking to wrap up the fifth Ashes test at the Oval and draw the series 2-2, albeit with the Ashes urn now lost.
But England and Joe Root needed more.
Tim Paine was standing on the precipice of history. Not since Steve Waugh’s captaincy in 2001 had an Australian team won an Ashes series in England. Could eighteen years’ history be upturned?
Root was on slightly more stable ground: after the last Ashes debacle down under, at least he was not fielding questions about some of England players’ behaviour off the field. England were in the slipstream after their well plotted World Cup success, their first World Cup trophy since time immemorial.
Australia could not have timed the return of their ball-tampering duo better, with Steve Smith taking on the mantle of being architect-in-chief of Australia’s epic series.
Some have, as a matter of fact, questioned Cricket Australia’s preemptive move in South Africa following the revelation of the ball tampering charges, accusing them of overplaying their hand in a bid to ensure that their two ‘star’ cricketers, Steve Smith and David Warner, came back into contention for the main draws, the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 and the Ashes that followed immediately after.
At the end of what were a rather ponderous five tests for both teams, Australia are walking away with the urn, armed with the misguided belief that they were far the superior of the two teams.
The fact of the matter is that the Ashes 2019 meandered along a jagged path for both teams. It’s just that Australia were better able to shield their flaws in the field, with the bat, and with the decision review system behind a rather stupendous show by two of their prize cricketers.
When a player of the calibre of Steve Smith scores a record 774 runs in the five test series, notching up commanding back-to-back centuries since he resumed playing test cricket in the match at Edgbaston, follows it up with 92 runs at Lord’s, only to be sidelined for a match and one innings after suffering a concussion from the blow by Jofra Archer, and goes on to score a double century in the decisive test at Old Trafford – it will take some doing by the opposing team to halt the man and the team in their tracks.
The signs were ominous enough early on, when in Birmigham, England had Australia on the mat and in deep trouble before Smith dug them out of the hole, not once but in both innings. Such was the impact of his presence that England went from having the upper hand to becoming the team unsuccessfully playing catchup thereafter.
It is to England’s credit that they did eventually square the series, on the back of some strong bowling performances – including more than one enlivening spell from all-rounder Ben Stokes, who lit up the scoreboard with his batting as well.
England had several moments when they could have taken the bull by the horns. By no stretch of the imagination were Australia a runaway hit.
The rain-afflicted Lord’s Test could have turned into a damp draw. Instead a bold declaration from Joe Root after Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow changed gears on the morning of the fifth day’s play – and not only were Australia put in the awkward position of chasing down a titillating Twenty20 target in about two remaining sessions, but also, test cricket was given a booster launch, perfectly aligned with the inauguration of the ICC World Test championship.
England spearhead James Anderson’s being sidelined with injury became the boon young Jofra Archer needed to establish himself. Like Stokes, Archer made an impressive name for himself in the World Cup, pulling up the stock card when it mattered most. Controversy dogged the fast bowler however, as the speed gun continued to suggest that Australia were in for some concussion troubles.
Indeed a concussion did eventually materialise, with Smith batting out the first innings for 92, but not before Marcus Labuschagne was brought into the Lord’s test as the first concussion substitute in the game. He eventually followed in Smith’s footsteps, not prolific in terms of runs, but dogged enough to push England back in their attempts to revamp their Ashes efforts.
With Smith ruled out of the third test at Headingley, Australia were set up for a powerful England performance. Yet it took a mammoth effort from Ben Stokes in the end to pull off yet another round of heroics, which the game was not short on.
Amidst the hype over Archer’s dangerous pace and his ability to pick up wickets – he had two six wicket hauls in the series – England needed a colossal World Cup final-like effort from Stokes before stinging Australia by making a comeback to square the series 1-1.
Staring into the abyss, Stokes and Root had kept England alive on the fourth day morning’s play in Leeds. But Root’s departure made Australia greedy with ambition. They would not be satiated as Stokes formed a belligerent partnership against all odds with the no.11, Jack Leach, who had little reputation as a batsman (leave alone as a spinner, the role he was supposed to fulfil).
Yet Stokes pulled off the unthinkable, and England chased down 359 heartstopping runs, 200 of them coming after Root’s dismissal. Stokes’ unbeaten 135 and that matchwinning 76-run partnership with Leach brought to mind England’s glory days, when the likes of Ian Botham in the 1980s and Andrew Flintoff in 2005 turned it on for the team.
But at Old Trafford, it was business as usual. Smith returned for the fourth test and raised his own game to score a double century. Australia were back in the lead and in the Ashes hunt, having securely retained the Ashes urn.
England will go back to the drawing board, wiser from the experience, recalling painfully how the series was turned on its head by the psychological impact of Smith turning on the screws in Birmingham. The Oval Test showed that England needed a psychological jumpstart, like the 69 run lead that allowed them to set Australia an implausible 399 to win.
That Anderson’s absence has yielded Archer stands them in good stead. Meanwhile Stuart Broad was creating records of his own, picking up over twenty wickets for the series, a first by an England fast bowler.
Yet Root must realise his calibre demands much more of his batting, and the rest of England lineup need to be more consistent if the team is to put up a fight against history.
Eventually England saw the silver lining of a possible opening partnership between Rory Burns and Joe Denly. But they have their work cut out for them if they are to build on the few highs in the series.
For Australia, despite speculation about the rotation of their key bowlers, Pat Cummins leads the tally with 29 wickets. They had their own moments of groping in the dark when Josh Hazlewood, like the other vice-captain appointee Mitchell Marsh, was not brought in until after the series was underway.
That Australia have appointed this many vice-captains in the recent past – let’s not forget Travis Head – but cannot find them a regular spot on the team must raise questions about leadership ability as well as strategy.
Justin Langer described the loss at Headingley as “the Ashes stolen from us.” But on closer inspection, Australia will find that without Smith and Labuschagne, and Wade in the end, they had little to write home about.
Chronic vulnerabilities resurfaced in the middle order. Warner became Stuart Broad’s bunny, being dismissed seven times by the quick. And Australia were still searching for an opener to complement Warner when the series ended.
Familiar names like Usman Khawaja, Cameron Bancroft, Marcus Harris and Travis Head continued to play musical chairs on the field and in the selectors’ minds. Truly a conundrum for Australia who have in their coaching staff, Justin Langer, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, prolific batsmen in their own right and all from the era of Australian dominance.
The Ashes series was tied. Australia retain the urn. But neither Australia nor England are out of the woods yet.