A good team, not a great one yet - Langer
Australia's coach Justin Langer wore a rueful look on his face as his players lifted the urn at The Oval, having lost to England by some distance in the final Test and so failed to win the series. Having set out upon a gruelling twin tour of the UK for the World Cup and the Ashes, he witnessed a pair of strong and successful campaigns without either fully satisfying.
With the benefit of a few moments' reflection, Langer reckoned that while there had been great improvement in the Australian team over his 16 months in charge so far, there would need to be a greater level of ruthlessness if they are to graduate from World Cup semi-finalists and Ashes retainers to consistent series and tournament winners.
"It's something we're getting better at, how we back up after a win," Langer said in reference to how the Edgbaston and Old Trafford victories had been followed by a draw at Lord's and defeat at The Oval. "That probably comes with the maturity of the group as well. It's ok to fight back when you are underdogs and it's one of those Australian things - we love the underdog tag. To fight back from a tough loss is admirable and I said how proud I was with everyone for that.
"But also over the last couple of years we haven't necessarily performed at our best after a win. Really good teams do that. We didn't do that too well after the first Test at Lord's. We didn't do it after this Test. There have been some Test series over the last couple of years where the team hasn't been able to. I think that'll be part of the maturity of our side. If you probably think about it, the way we were in this series, we aren't a great team yet.
"We are a good team, we are a maturing team. We have got some great players in it. But we're aspiring to be a great cricket team. You got to work hard and get consistent results to achieve that. That comes from experience and learning how to win. That comes with players individually getting more experienced and the team working together. Those sort of things evolve I think. I think back to the start of my career, in 1993, we had some senior players but we didn't necessarily win all the time. And that we learnt to do through Steve Waugh's era. We learnt to be ruthless but we also had seven or eight great players and a number of very good players and a couple of good ones like me. But that takes time to develop and evolve."
Something that Langer will have to balance coming home from England will be how the Test team will have perhaps three spots settled in the batting line-up for the home summer, but also how to pick David Warner back up after he was thoroughly beaten by Stuart Broad across this series. Warner was not alone as a struggling left-hand batsman at the top of the order, but he is the one player in that group who possesses a career record suggesting that it was a temporary problem rather than a defining one.
"I think, talking frankly, he let Stuart Broad get into his head and he thought way too much about it," Langer said. "I've seen it before, even with the great players, every now and then they have a series - and I'm talking about the all-time great players - they have a series where…I remember Gilly (Adam Gilchrist) with Andrew Flintoff, I remember seeing Steve Waugh sit on the team bus in South Africa and the guy had been a run machine for so long, he got out just before stumps and I, in a sick sort of way, thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen.
"I didn't think great players had lean runs. I used to have lean runs all the time but even great players have lean runs and I'm sure David - we know he's a very good player, there's no question about that - but he had it tough, particularly against Stuart Broad. I used to have it against Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) and I couldn't solve the issue and it's so hard when you try to problem solve and then you're in the middle of a big series trying to solve the puzzle.
"In this instance I don't think David solved the puzzle, and he'll be first to admit that, he'll probably be very relieved he gets on the Qantas flight in a day's time and doesn't have to face Stuart Broad for a while I reckon. But he is certainly, there's plenty of upside still to his batting. I've learned over a long period you never write off champion players, it doesn't matter what sport, you never write off champion players. They tend to come good, don't they? So he's had a tough series, no doubt about that, but he's also a champion player so usually with champion players they get a bit more time to come good."
Langer was gratified by the displays of Steven Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, while also appreciating how Matthew Wade had battled his way through the trials of the series to notch a pair of book-ending centuries. "We cut to the chase, I thought our bowling throughout this series was absolutely world-class. I think we talked throughout about the maturity and healthy group of fast bowlers that we were able to have on the park," he said. "The bowlers were brilliant. Nathan Lyon as well and the way they all stepped up at different times.
"But we didn't bat well enough. I said this at the start of the series that the team that bats well will win the series. I said it consistently enough and we didn't bat well enough. That's the truth. I mean Steve Smith was obviously outstanding. What a pleasure to watch. He's a brilliant young man but what a pleasure to watch him bat. I thought the development of Marnus was exciting. He worked so hard. He's a bit in the Steve Smith mould of the players that you love to see do well. He worked so hard.
"The way Matthew Wade scored two centuries in this series, obviously including today. We talked about him knocking so hard to get an opportunity. He did that and then to back up with two Test centuries in an Ashes series showed great fight and great skill. I loved Matthew Wade's footwork. But we certainly fell short in other areas and we need to work on that."
In addition to ruthlessness, Langer had a simple goal based on what he had seen in England in 2019 - find a batting line-up that will better capitalise on the current riches in Australia's bowling stocks. "With this exciting fast bowling group we've got, if we start batting well we'll win a lot of games of cricket," he said. "We go to Australia to play two pink ball Test matches, against two good sides in Pakistan and New Zealand, two day-night Test matches will be exciting.
"There's a real challenge for young Australian batters, the ones who want to step up and score lots of runs and work hard on their footwork patterns and techniques and ability to score runs it's a pretty exciting time. That's a big challenge."