Hands up all those who thought the fate of the Ashes would be sealed before the teams headed to the Oval?
And keep your hands raised if you thought it would be England celebrating winning the cherished urn?
Not many then....
There have been some enthralling series between England and Australia over the past decade. England’s victory in 2005 galvanised the whole nation, and ended a period of Australian domination stretching back to the late 1980s. England also had the upper hand in three of the five subsequent series, although Australia’s successes (including the last meeting in 2013/14) had come courtesy of 5-0 whitewashes.
Popular opinion, backed up by on-field form and results suggested the tourists were strong favourites to retain the Ashes, and even after England’s impressive 169 run victory at Cardiff, few would have confidently predicted what was to follow...
In fairness, the Australian response at Lord’s was not wholly unexpected, but the reversal in fortune from the opening test was extraordinary; and the tourists’ massive winning margin of 405 runs and England’s woeful capitulation in their second innings was more than enough ammunition for journalists to effectively write off the hosts chances.
But sport has an uncanny habit of proving many a so-called expert wrong, and Jimmy Anderson’s first innings haul of 6-47 paved the way for a comfortable success at Edgbaston, before Stuart Broad’s performance on that incredible Thursday morning at Trent Bridge effectively sealed the Australians’ fate.
The sheer scale of the on-field fluctuations was typified by the statistic that Alastair Cook had become captain of the most consistently inconsistent (or vice versa) side in the history of test cricket. The bare facts are that all four games have been one-sided, yet the action has been totally compelling from the outset. That Australia made 566 for the loss of just eight wickets in the first innings at Lord’s is impressive, but not unduly remarkable. That they then compiled 714 runs in losing forty wickets at Birmingham and Nottingham is most certainly remarkable in comparison.
Ignore the discussions surround pitch preparation; no country in the world would do anything other than create conditions that would favour their own players. The best cricketers can compete on any surface and the Australian’s simply underperformed as a unit.
The loss of the Ashes prompted Aussie skipper Michael Clarke to announce his impending retirement from international cricket. He has had a desperate time with the bat, but I hope his legacy will not be defined by his most recent performances because Clarke is one of the finest batsmen of modern times and his record stands up to the closest scrutiny. He comes across as a thoroughly decent bloke as well; and in amongst the euphoria of such a notable triumph, it is only right to acknowledge Michael Clarke’s outstanding contribution to the game.
For his counterpart Alastair Cook, the series has been a personal triumph. Pilloried in the press for his batting and captaincy, Cook deserves a huge amount of credit for the way he has conducted himself on and off the field. He has made some valuable runs throughout the summer and, whilst I am still not totally convinced about some elements of his captaincy, he clearly has the total support of the dressing room, and an ability to galvanise his team to produce telling contributions at crucial moments.
There have been two stand out performers: Joe Root (443 runs at 73.8) and Stuart Broad (21 wickets at 18.1), and whilst the remaining figures don’t appear all that impressive at first glance, there are six batsmen averaging between 30 and 40 and three other bowlers apart from Broad have claimed five wicket hauls. Some of the fielding has been brilliant (with Ben Stokes responsible for two particularly memorable catches) and England’s more positive and exciting brand of cricket has ultimately been rewarded with the sport’s most coveted prize.
There are still areas of concern: we definitely need a top-class spinner; Adam Lyth and Ian Bell have not produced the expected volume of runs, and Jos Buttler has had a string of poor scores. The lower-middle order of Stokes, Buttler and Ali is a potentially match-changing combination, but such attacking style of play can always be the recipe for the kind of rout that was witnessed at Lord’s. Providing that is the exception rather than the rule, then this side does seem to have the ability and mentality to win games and become a real force in the test arena.
I’m saving the last word for Jonny Bairstow, recalled to the England side after a brilliant sequence of scores that have seen him average 108 in the county Championship. Jonny is an old boy of St Peter’s, York – as am I. He is a former school 1st XI captain – as am I. And he is an outstanding cricketer – oh well; two out of three and all that.
Jonny was also the recipient of the final six deliveries I will ever bowl (back in May last year) and it is fantastic to see such a talented, yet grounded and likeable young man getting another opportunity to perform at the highest level....
The final test gets underway at the Oval on 20th August. Given the events of the past couple of months, I don’t believe anyone can confidently forecast the outcome... but I do think it’s reasonable to suppose that those who have purchased tickets for the fifth day probably won’t see much cricket!