This Ashes series was crap. Bloody awful, one of the worst seen in this country in many years.
There, I’ve said it. It runs completely counter to the narrative that so much of the media have gone with, whereby for some it was comparable in its wonder to 2005, but sorry it was rubbish. Not because England won, not for a moment, but because there were five Tests, none of which offered up a contest.
With hindsight, Cardiff was the best of them, and had anyone said after that game that it would prove to be the case, there would have been wringing of hands across the cricketing spectrum. Yet England’s win by the margin of 169 runs proved to be the closest the sides would be, with every subsequent result being even wider. Aside from arguably Edgbaston, where the feeling was very much after day one that England had it in the bag, even if the final scorecard didn’t quite reflect that, it’s the only one where the game was in any kind of balance after the first innings were completed.
That England won the series was a welcome surprise, but winning doesn’t mean it was a good series in itself. The greatest Ashes series of them all is routinely named as 2005, and Australians are as quick to agree about that as the English, even though Australia lost. Because that series was a slugfest between two teams who fought themselves to a standstill and didn’t give an inch. This was a series where as soon as one side got on top, the other waved the white flag of surrender and looked to the next match – the lack of fight, the lack of discipline and the lack of gumption was shocking from both teams. This isn’t good Test cricket, it’s a slaughter. What made this series a bizarre curiosity was that the slaughter went in both directions, meaning that at the start of every Test the unknown was which team would be wielding the cleaver, and which would be the tethered goat.
Test cricket can be one of the most captivating sports there is, because the timescale involved in each match allows for ebbs and flows, for sides to recover and fight back. Magnified over a full five match series, it can rise to the heights of the majestic. Not every five Test series can begin to reach such exalted standards as the very best, and when one side outclasses the other then it can be something of a long haul, even for the victorious supporters, who tend to feel a slight dissatisfaction about the lack of uncertainty about the outcome, but given even a modicum of competition, it is fascinating.
And therein lies the problem. 3-2 looks like it was a good series at first glance, but sport is only ever compelling where there is competition, and in each match there was barely any. Indeed only one of them had that air of competition beyond the first day.
All of which makes analysing the series somewhat problematic. Did England win it or Australia lose it? Given both sides showed quite exceptional levels of incompetence mixed in with occasional brilliance, drawing conclusions from a little over or under half a series means that a caveat must apply in each instance.
For England, only Root so much as managed a century (two of them) in the whole series. His batting was so far ahead of the rest of the team that when he failed, so did the team as a whole. To put it another way, only he could look back on it as a batsman with unalloyed pleasure. His next test will be to see whether he can replicate this kind of run scoring away from home. There’s no reason to assume he won’t, but at present he is a player in a rich run of form. If he carries on in the two difficult tours ahead, then he might really begin to be considered the real deal.
Cook had a real mixed bag with the bat. Two fifties only in itself is a pretty poor return in a normal series, though in this one only Bell and Root passed fifty more often than him. Yet both fifties were in defeat, and the second of them rather irrelevant given the match situation. It’s somewhat ironic that in advance of the series this writer was anything but alone in feeling that for England to win, Cook would have to have a fantastic series. In reality, his contribution with the bat to victory was absolutely nil. His captaincy in contrast was fine. Not outstanding, but decent enough. The problem with Cook is not with Cook himself, it is how the media respond to him. Competent captaincy is most welcome, he acknowledged himself that he had learned and changed his approach, good on him. But it is now at the point where such competence is lauded as being worthy of Brearley, and it’s total nonsense. Cook had a slightly disappointing series with the bat but captained perfectly well. It isn’t disloyal or anti-England to state reality and not join in the hagiography. Cook seems immune from any kind of criticism from sections of the press, and it doesn’t do him any favours.
The one thing which is certainly in his favour batting wise is that although he didn’t get the runs, he looks technically much more sound than he did during his miserable run in 2013/14. At that time his head was far too far across to the offside, which dragged his feet across to the offside, making him vulnerable to both the straight ball and the edge behind. That particular failing has been corrected, and he appears much more secure in his technique. To that extent, his quiet series can be put down to one of those things, but given the poor time he had of it previously, he does need to start scoring heavily again fairly soon.
His batting partner Lyth has probably seen his Test career come and go, and the pain etched on his face with his second innings dismissal tugged at the heartstrings. England have developed a habit of losing openers not called Cook in the last few years, and both Compton and Carberry must feel considerable irritation that they weren’t persevered with, in the latter case in the face of far better bowling than any of the other hopefuls have had to cope with.
Ballance has responded well to being dropped mid series, and time in county cricket getting his game back in order might be just what he needs. He has plenty of ability, and he’s hardly the first to suffer a difficult sophomore season.
The middle orders of both sides have performed poorly. Bell seemed to either have a relative feast or total famine, but in the context of the others, those three fifties represent a reasonable return. There is a real question mark now over his future. With the exception of the pleasure that was evident from his contribution at his home ground, he has cut an unhappy, if not a detached figure for a little while. Some with a poor grasp of grammar might have described it as “disinterested” even. If that is to be Bell’s last appearance in an England shirt, as seems possible from his comment about deciding his future in a couple of weeks, then it’s a loss to England, and one that smacks of carelessness. He still has much to offer, and he’s only 33.
Bairstow and Stokes both did OK on occasion, and in the first instance deserves persevering with. In the second, Stokes tended to show the difficulty faced by so many all rounders over the years of trying to get both disciplines functioning at the same time. He is a player of immense promise, and at the stage of his career he is at, his ability to bowl wonderful spells as well as play match changing innings is as much as should be expected of him.
The same could be said for Buttler, who after coming into the side as someone who had batting talent but whose keeping needed a lot of work, proceeded to turn that on its head by keeping extremely well throughout (the legside catches standing back were good, the one standing up was outstanding) and being barely able to score a run. His final innings of the series did appear to show a degree of learning from experience, and in itself that’s a promising sign. The improvement in his wicketkeeping too implies a player willing to learn.
The final member of the middle order, albeit one who batted as low as nine when a nightwatchman was employed was Moeen Ali. Like with Bell over the years, there is a predisposition to be both frustrated by him and to make excuses for him. He is simply unutterably gorgeous to watch; his strokeplay is entirely reminiscent of Gower, and when his batting is flowing, there are few players in world cricket more enjoyable to witness. His position in the batting order often meant he had to go for his shots at the end of an innings, and that’s probably the best way for him to bat, as his technique isn’t a tight one. Of course, in his case there is a problem, which is that his primary role in this team is as a bowler – something that may be considered unfair on him. He didn’t do badly in the series overall, looking back at previous posts in advance of the series, his final average of 45 with the ball was even a prediction for being considered adequate. There are two issues here though, firstly that he was comprehensively outbowled by Nathan Lyon, and secondly England’s refusal to pick Adil Rashid, seemingly under any circumstances.
It’s doubtful there is a much better finger spinner in English cricket, and having gone with Moeen, he should receive sufficient faith for him to continue working on his game. He will get better. However, it is becoming ever more difficult to see a justification for Rashid’s continuing exclusion, and even harder to see why so many of the press are so dead set against him. Moeen was tried out as being far from the finished product, and given time to develop. Rashid seems to be expected to be a hundred Test veteran on debut. Surely he will get his chance in the UAE, and long overdue.
Of all the bowlers, Broad was the clear stand out. Given his record over the last few years, he’s in serious danger of being consistently underrated. Barely a series goes by without demands for him to be dropped, yet he’s one of England’s most consistent performers with the ball, even without the stunning spell of 8-15 at Trent Bridge which was truly wonderful. He even did well in the horror tour of Australia last time. When he’s not bowling through injury, he’s a serious threat to any side in world cricket. As long as he’s told to pitch the bloody thing up.
Anderson will most of all benefit from the break enforced by injury. That he was even considered for the fifth Test is concerning. He’s an exceptionally fit athlete, and could go on for several more years yet, if properly looked after.
The return of Steven Finn has to be the most welcome sight in the England team. He’s still not back at the pace he was, no matter how much he tries to deny it. Perhaps the confidence gained from being an integral part of the attack will allow him to up that pace, because a bowler of that height consistently bowling high eighties is going to be a difficult proposition anywhere. What happened to him in the past is a matter of deep frustration, but looking forward he is still young, still taking wickets at a truly remarkable strike rate and needs to be allowed to just bowl. If England have changed one thing in regard to their approach to him, then let it be to focus on his wicket taking ability, not how many runs an over he goes for.
Mark Wood is something of a conundrum. He clearly has a lot of talent, but his injury record isn’t a good one, and there have to be concerns about managing him properly. Australia did point the way there with Ryan Harris, who they wrapped in cotton wool and as a result got at least two more years out of him than anyone could have hoped for, including him. Seam bowlers are almost always carrying some kind of injury, so it isn’t a matter of plucking him out of the team at the first sign of trouble, but it is one of ensuring he doesn’t suffer a major injury.
For Australia, this is the end of an era for many of the squad. Harris finally succumbed to his troublesome body before it even began, and perhaps more than anything that proved to be the ultimate difference between the sides. He has been an outstandingly good bowler who had an Indian summer to his career. When he broke down in the 2010/11 series, the sadness was the feeling that would be it, a career over before it had even begun. He may not have played 80 Tests, but he played a lot more than he had any right to, given his physical problems.
Australia’s top three all had decent enough series, with the proviso that like everyone else, when they were bad, they were very, very bad. Chris Rogers was outstanding throughout, and probably wishes he could have played his whole Test career against England. Oh hang, on he more or less did. Warner in contrast made lots of contributions without ever going on to get a big score. It means that his figures are decent enough, but lack a match changing or match winning innings.
Smith had a similar series to Bell in some ways, the difference being that when he did get in, he went on to a very big score indeed. His idiosyncratic technique makes this quite likely, and with him it’s a matter of accepting that, and knowing that when he does get in, he is going to seriously hurt the opposition. His batting went a fair way to winning two Tests, focusing on his troubles in the other three is somewhat harsh.
Clarke’s retirement at the end of the series broke the last link with the great Australian side of the first decade of this century. He had a poor series, without question, but very few players call it a day in a blaze of glory, not least because of the need for team mates to do their bit to provide the correct result. McGrath, Warne et al managed it when they whitewashed England, but that truly great side is an exception. Few decide to retire because they’ve been playing so well, and Nasser Hussain’s beautifully timed retirement winning a Test match and series with a superb century simply shows he had a sense of timing with his career that wasn’t always present with his batting.
England gave Clarke a guard of honour, and predictably enough (and more than welcome) the English crowd gave him a standing ovation on his approach to the crease. Sometimes English crowds make you feel quite proud of them. Clarke deserves it. He’s been a terrific player, a terrific captain, and for those of us lucky enough not to be Australian, he was our leader in cricket too in the most tragic of circumstances. His honesty in the face of defeat, and refusal to hide behind platitudes also marked him out. It has been nothing short of a privilege to watch him play, and to leave the game of cricket having made a positive contribution is as good a cricketing epitaph as there can be. To lose him in the same week as the peerless Kumar Sangakkara is undoubtedly a blow to the game, and the ICC could do worse than listen to what they say about the future of cricket. And pigs might fly.
Just like England’s, Australia’s middle order had a woeful time of it. Ironically enough that failing was just as prevalent in the 5-0 last time, but they were bailed out repeatedly by the lower order. Not this time, though Johnson and Starc had their moments with the bat. The jettisoning of Watson was possibly premature, his trials with the lbw law are hardly new, and at Cardiff he was the recipient of a couple of decisions that were fairly questionable, particularly the first innings one. His replacements didn’t do any better, although his career is now probably at an end, distinguished by being one of the great unfulfilled talents.
Voges made a late bid to extend his Test career, Mitchell Marsh shows a lot of promise as a true all rounder given that bowling was thought to be his weaker discipline (he didn’t bat well), Shaun Marsh showed again – and probably for the final time – that he simply isn’t quite good enough at the very highest level and Brad Haddin also reached the end of the road. The manner of the conclusion to his Test career seemed to cause some discord in the Australian camp amongst the senior players. It’s a difficult one. His batting and keeping had both deteriorated to the point his place should have been in jeopardy even if it wasn’t. Perhaps it should just be put down to being one of those terribly unfortunate instances where they were faced with two wrong choices, and went for the better cricketing one.
Peter Nevill looks a decent enough replacement anyway, although he didn’t contribute with the bat too much more than the rest of that middle order. His first class batting record is a very good one though, and he looks a perfectly competent gloveman.
Of the bowlers, given the loss of Harris, Siddle did seem the obvious replacement. With hindsight. It is all too easy to look at his performance in the final Test and say he should have been there all along, but there weren’t many calls for him to be in the side at the expense of anyone else, and in advance it was felt that Johnson and Starc’s pace would be more than good enough for England anyway. Both were intermittently major threats, and the rest of the time expensive. Ironically enough, it was Josh Hazlewood who made way for Siddle, despite having a better record than either of them, and for reasons hard to fathom bore the brunt of the criticism of the seam bowling selection that saw Siddle called up.
Nathan Lyon too had a good series, and showed what he is – a very fine orthodox finger spinner. He’s every bit the equal of Graeme Swann, and perhaps at long last Australia will be content with their lot in the spinning department rather than harking back to the days of Warne.
Given how the series unfolded, in this one perhaps more than any other, it can be said that 3-2 was a fair result. Three times England hammered Australia, twice Australia hammered England. If there was a sixth Test, it could have gone either way, probably with a hammering.
The England players will rightly look back on the achievement with great pleasure, for they were the underdogs in the eyes of everyone. The win is there to be enjoyed, but these are two teams who are very much at the crossroads. Australia will largely need a new one, and will have to spend quite some time rebuilding and finding the right combinations. England are at least playing a much more positive style of cricket, but they look a deeply flawed side at this stage. There are plenty of players in that side in the early stages of their careers, and there will be ups and downs in their own performances. What is more worrying is the collective implosions they seem so prone to. They have two very difficult tours ahead, and as a young side may well rise to the challenge. But they are going to have to, because otherwise they are in trouble.
This wasn’t an especially enjoyable series. When third day tickets become something of a risky purchase not through it being a poor pitch, but because either of the sides are incapable of lasting that long, then there is both something wrong with them, and something extremely wrong with the series. Some of the batting was genuinely second rate, in shot selection and execution. It is to be hoped this is something of an aberration, because more of the same is going to pall very quickly. Recent history around the world suggests winning away is becoming ever more rare, in which case England will face both the next 9 months and the next Ashes series with considerable trepidation.
The most damning indictment of this Ashes series is that the two Test version against New Zealand offered far more entertainment, far more sporting hazard, far more tension that anything the five subsequent games did. England won, and to that extent it was great. But Test cricket supporters have always had one eye on the team and one eye on the wider game. The game itself in this series was dreadfully poor. Pointing to the other eye and ignoring that is simply refusing to see evil.