It took as little time as anticipated for England to wrap up the fourth Test, and with it the series and the Ashes. It has been an extraordinary win, all the more so for being so unexpected. Yet in that sense it isn’t quite so different to last time, when Australia won 5-0, a result no one (apart from Glenn McGrath, who always forecasts that) expected either.
England are rightly celebrating, they thoroughly deserve to as well. With the exception of Lords, which looks ever more peculiar in retrospect, they have battered Australia. England did something in response to that defeat that much of the media failed to, which was to accept the pinch and move on. England’s resilience following that hammering is something that they can rightly take pride in, and is the sign of a good team, or at least one that might become a good team.
Yet the danger in responding to this victory is in being wise after the event. It isn’t vindication of the last two years because England didn’t play how they’d played over the last two years. Cook is to be thoroughly praised for his captaincy because he didn’t captain the side how he’d done so up to this point. That isn’t proof that those backing him as captain previously were right in any way, but it is a recognition that for whatever reason, he seems to have dramatically improved – something those supporting him didn’t demand he do. And that is a fascinating development. Cook was dreadful in Australia, he was worse against Sri Lanka, desperate against India, and a disaster as one day captain before his more than slightly hamfisted sacking. In his interview after the game’s conclusion, he acknowledged that, admitting to being stubborn (not necessarily a bad thing), and to having made an effort to be more proactive and positive in this series.
Trevor Bayliss too chose his words carefully, saying that Cook had been excellent in this series, with a fairly clear implication when talking about how this had been done that he didn’t think he had been previously. And that is about right – the only rational way to to respond to any situation is to adapt a view as the facts change. Cook has been really good as skipper this series, and it is immensely to his credit that he has been prepared to take input from outside and learn. After having been captain in the same rather plodding and defensive manner for quite a long time, that is perhaps the most welcome and unexpected development. Being wise after the event means refusing to admit that no one saw this coming – and no one did.
Bayliss himself had come into the England set up at the start of this series, but he wasn’t present for the New Zealand one, which gave the first hint at Cook’s England adopting a different approach. It was such a sudden switch after the West Indies series and the miserable World Cup that the removal of Peter Moores would seem to point to that being the major change. Yet it is probably a little more than that – Moores’ style of coaching was similar to Andy Flower’s in one area, that it was prescriptive, with the coach directing the team rather than the captain. That was seen time and again where England would come in after a session, and resume with entirely different tactics – the captain was the cipher for a coach telling them what to do.
The appointment of Bayliss, and the retention of Farbrace, indicated that this type of coach was not how Strauss saw the best interests of England – and that decision was a wise one. Whatever anyone thought of Cook’s captaincy, it was frustrating to see him not actually captain the side himself. It is therefore a possibility that the change in coaching set up allowed Cook for the first time to captain the side how he wanted to. England have been the only side where the coach has been given such power, and Bayliss and Farbrace are more in the Fletcher model, where the coach stands in the background to support the players and the captain runs the team.
It’s no coincidence that England players have quickly felt the freedom to back their own ability under this kind of structure, nor that the previously rigid set up limited that freedom. Playing without fear is an easy thing to say, but it requires a system where players aren’t berated for their failures. England under Moores and Flower certainly had success, but the team became ever more hidebound, negative and restricted, terrified of making a mistake – and it was that attitude that Australia pounced on in 2013/14.
Equally, the early season series against New Zealand may have acted as the dropping of the scales in front of English eyes; if that is the case, then England may well owe a debt of gratitude to Brendon McCullum, though perhaps Australia would have been equally well advised to have had a chat to Kane Williamson about how to play the moving ball. The one day series too, with England playing scintillating cricket, showed a break with the shambles of the past, in intent if nothing else – which is why no one greatly cared if England lost that final match, they were far too wowed by the style of play. The point is that it is easy to blame Moores, but he was simply continuing an approach that he himself started and Andy Flower continued. It worked for a while too, but signs of problems were there long before the implosion in Australia if only some had paid attention to those pointing them out.
The hardest part of coaching is being able to keep out of the way. Bayliss, when responding to questions about Cook’s captaincy, demurred at the idea he’d given instructions, saying all he had done was to offer options, and it was up to Cook to then choose – and that he chose wisely.
What happens next is the key, because harder challenges lie ahead, in the UAE and South Africa. At the start of this series the feeling was that this would be Cook’s last as captain – the appointment of Root as his deputy and the end of cycle feel about Ashes series indicated that win or lose, it might be time to move on. The nature of England’s win has changed that somewhat, though Cook may still feel that he could go out on a high by doing so. Yet the change is that he now can choose himself, rather than circumstances dictating. It isn’t the win that has done that, it’s the way England won, and the way he himself led the side. Let’s make no bones about it – it was quite impressive, and all the more so for being so unexpected.
There has been a clear shift in so many other ways too. The England players made a point of going around the ground after each win and meeting the supporters, posing for selfies, signing autographs. The interviews have been much more open and honest – all things that have been areas of deep criticism for the England of the last 18 months and beyond. There is not a chance of the ECB ever apologising for anything that they’ve done, but this at least is a start and a move in the right direction. Whether it is mere lip service or something more, is down to the ECB.
One of the most striking things about this England side is the clear joie de vivre that the young players have brought to the team. There has been a changing of the guard in many ways beyond the obvious, a recognition that in order to get the best out of them, letting them free to do their thing is the way to do it. Stokes, Root, Moeen and Wood have been the most evident examples, and even the grumpy old curmudgeons like Broad (OK, that’s a touch unfair on him) and Anderson have bought into it. The England dressing room appears a much better place to be than it has been for quite a long time. The idea that this win is a put down of all those who have been calling for exactly this is somewhat bizarre. This is not the England team approach that received so much criticism. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that one particular player would have thrived in such an environment, given it is exactly what he wanted to see in the first place.
Certainly Joe Root has benefitted, and has gone to number one in the Test player rankings as a result. It may be that it is a purple patch of form and nothing more, but there are signs that he may be becoming a genuinely fantastic batsman. He scores so quickly, without apparent effort. Technically, he is getting out to the ball much better than he did when he was dropped in Australia, where he hung back in the crease. His weight distribution now comes forward into the ball, hence the glorious drives – but more than anything, his approach is one where he is first and foremost looking to score runs. This too is an expression of a change of mentality in the side, and one in which he’s thriving. That England now have a set up that is seeking to get the best from their players rather than berate them and keep them in line, amazingly enough seems to work.
The bowlers too have performed admirably. Broad has been underrated for quite a while; yet his record in recent years has been very good, even in the Ashes meltdown of 2013/14 where he along with Stokes was pretty much the only player who could hold his head up high; the biggest issue with him is when England insisted on playing him through injury. He is now number two in the bowling rankings, with Anderson just behind him. Yet those two are a known quantity, what is welcome is seeing how the support bowlers have performed. They’ve not always got the results that might mark them out as being special, but they have shown immense promise. Stokes blows hot and cold, as young players tend to do, Wood looks like he has pace and the ability to move the ball. They have potential, if correctly managed. As for Finn, one fine match and one quiet one is fine as long as he continues the upward trajectory. He too is indicative of a different approach from the England side, allowing him to bowl rather than micro-managing him. Again, it is to be greatly welcomed, and with a degree of luck, the results should follow, and the pace return.
All of the others contributed. Lyth may not have had a great series to date, but the way he set about the small target at Edgbaston extinguished Australian hopes early, while his catching was very good. He won’t be content with his series, and nor should he be, the Oval may signal a last chance for him, but he has had an effect on the outcome. Bell batted superbly at Edgbaston but has had a quiet series outside of that. The jury remains out for Bairstow, but he did bat well at Trent Bridge, while Buttler has had a poor series with the bat, but kept extremely well.
And Moeen, well Moeen has bowled just about adequately, but batted very well indeed. Which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given he’s a batsman first and foremost. Two spinners will be needed in the UAE, and while Moeen might well be the best off spinner England have (depending on whether Panesar can continue his rehabilitation), the Oval could well be the opportunity to introduce Adil Rashid.
For Australia, the big news was the announcement of Michael Clarke’s retirement. At many times he has been a prophet not honoured in his own land, but the warmth of the reception he got from the Nottingham crowd showed the esteem in which he is held. He has had a year of unimagined highs and tragic lows, and perhaps that finally proved too much for him, in which case that would be completely understandable. He has been a fantastic player and an often inspirational captain. But over the last year, what he proved more than anything else was that he was a leader with whom few could compare. When Phillip Hughes was tragically killed, Clarke managed to speak not just for a nation in shock, but the whole cricketing world. He became everyone’s captain, one who all who have picked up a bat would have followed to the ends of the earth. In terrible circumstances, he stood tall.
Sport is cruel, and doesn’t often allow fairytale endings. But Clarke will undoubtedly receive a standing ovation on both his last visits to the crease in international cricket, and few England supporters would begrudge him a century if the cricketing gods were to smile just once more on this supremely talented player. There is so much more that can be said about him, but one must defer to Jarrod Kimber, whose article captured it perfectly. It is outstanding:
In this series, Clarke himself was a paradigm for the batting woes of his team. Apart from Chris Rogers, and to some extent David Warner, they all struggled. Steve Smith had one fabulous Test, but apart from that looked horrifically out of form, demonstrating how quickly confidence can turn to despair in a batsman. The middle order has had a calamitous series, with only Adam Voges’ unbeaten half century in heavy defeat offering up any kind of contribution. He did enough to save his career for a further Test, but beyond that, given his age, he may not have much further to go.
Rogers will finish at the Oval, and with Clarke going too, plus Haddin’s and Watson’s careers being likely over, there will be major changes to the Australian team after this series. Shaun Marsh has yet to look a Test cricketer, and is 32, while Mitchell Johnson absolutely is a Test cricketer but is nearly 34. And perhaps that was always likely to be the case even if they had won. Right at the start of this series, this blog made the argument that you never know if it is one tour too many until it actually happens. This has indeed turned out to be one tour too many, yet although that possibility was acknowledged pre-series, there wasn’t much in the way of evidence that it would happen, more a feeling that there was the potential for it, and nothing stronger than that.
With so many players likely to move on, the management of that shift is going to be critical. The reason for including Johnson in the above list is that it would be criminal to lose him at the same time as all that experience elsewhere. He is bowling quickly and well, and has shown little sign of age catching up with him.
The home summer coming up for them comprises New Zealand and the West Indies. It’s going to be a tough first half for a new team. The blow of losing Ryan Harris on the eve of the series perhaps did more than anything to wreck the plans for a last hurrah for the older generation.
For England, it has the potential to be a firm base from which to build. The talent has always been there, it’s how it was harnessed, and the reality is that it was harnessed extremely badly for much of the preceding 18 months. That they have managed to get a basic grip on it now is to the credit of all those behind it. But it doesn’t excuse those 18 months, and it certainly doesn’t excuse the ECB for their wider failings. If used properly from here, they could genuinely reclaim their position in the hearts of all England fans, but it would be a mistake to think this Ashes win will do it and make everything in the garden rosy. Cricket in this country is in trouble. Cricket in the world is in trouble. The alignment of England’s undoubtedly rousing victory with the release of Death of a Gentleman makes it foolish to believe that this solves everything, because it doesn’t. But it could be a first step used wisely. The doubt is whether that wisdom exists, that it will be used as a smokescreen to cover all the other issues that exist. England have won, but those Outside Cricket have been merely waved at from the ivory towers.
For now, let us appreciate the return of the urn, and the efforts of an England team who have surpassed expectations. For a Sunday, that is more than enough. But the wider issues will not go away.