Brettig: Why Australia deserved to go home with the Ashes
A pesky Australian hundred, a fourth-innings collapse, an England team celebrating victory at The Oval to round off the summer. On a sunny Sunday afternoon at Kennington, so much of this looked very familiar for Australian cricketers of recent vintage, right down to the raucous noise emanating from the seats as the final set of the touring side's wickets fell.
What was different, though, arrived at the end of a lengthy presentation ceremony, albeit beneath a backdrop emblazoned with the words "series drawn". If this sounded uncharitable then it was nothing compared to the four Australian fingers and the clenched English fist that had greeted many of the same players in Sydney a little more than 18 months ago.
Tim Paine's Australian team did not end this ceremony as four before them had done, standing to one side as a group of men in three lions caps lifted the Ashes urn. This time it was their champagne, their streamers, and their reason to be most cheerful, not only for retaining the urn, but being part of the best Ashes series since 2005, and arguably the friendliest since then too.
England undoubtedly deserved their final victory, but it was one that the Australians could afford to concede so far as the urn was concerned. Through Edgbaston, Lord's, Headingley and Old Trafford, when the Ashes were alive, they had played more of the better cricket, boasting in Steven Smith the undisputed dominant force in the series, in Marnus Labuschagne a worthy understudy, and in Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon three of the five leading wicket-takers.
It had taken a Ben Stokes miracle in Leeds to keep the Ashes alive for one more Test, and after that crushing moment, the way the Australians recovered their composure and put together a determined and sustained display in Manchester spoke volumes for their resilience but also their perspective: something they had gained in spades in the year and a half since the Newlands scandal that had followed the previous Ashes series.
Unburdened by the pressure of the Ashes and the expectation that went with it, England played much the better cricket at The Oval, underlined by the numerous holes that Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer punched in the Australian top-order. Ultimately it meant that both the World Cup and the Ashes would be determined by wildly varying count-back systems. The World Cup final's, for most boundaries when the Super Over ended in a tie, was among cricket's newest. The tradition that states that the Ashes stays with the winner of the preceding series is among the oldest and far less likely to ever change. Both sides knew the math entering this series, and Australia did just enough, as England did back in July.
Reflecting on the achievement, Paine had little hesitation in pointing out that the foundation for the result had been laid in the first Test in Birmingham, where he and the rest of the team had faced the most raucous crowd in England and run away with a comprehensive victory. For that, they owed plenty to Smith, who rescued the tourists from 122 for 8 on day one and then carved out twin centuries, but also to a far superior series preparation than that enjoyed by England.
"Certainly Edgbaston, there was so much talk about that being a fortress and how difficult a place that was going to be for us to start the series, probably by design," Paine said. "So for us to come over and win that first Test quite convincingly gave us the belief we could do it and gave us a taste that how we wanted to play over here could work. To get that confirmation early made it easier for the guys to stick to what we wanted to do. Getting off to a good start is important when you are overseas."
Smith, too, saw Birmingham as the key to all that followed for him, namely 774 runs and an undisputed garland as the player of the series. "That gave me a lot of confidence," Smith said. "That was my favourite innings of the whole series that I played. The first Test match as we know is always incredibly important in an Ashes series and to pull the team out of what was trouble at the time gve me that confidence straight up that I could slot back in and perform."
Nevertheless, the entry of Archer into the series, at the expense of the injured James Anderson, changed the balance of the remaining Tests. Joe Root and England will be happy in the knowledge that, with their new spearhead helping the other members of the attack, plus the significant addition of Jack Leach in place of the listless Moeen Ali, they won two of the remaining four matches and set down a decent marker for the next Ashes encounter in Australia.
It is for that reason, plus the way the Australians twice failed to follow up a victory with an equally staunch performance (Paine notably bowled first at both Lord's and The Oval and paid for it with a draw and a defeat), the touring side will go home without too great a degree of triumphalism.
They will also know, the batsmen in particular, that the imminent start of the Sheffield Shield season, four rounds to take place before the home Tests against Pakistan and New Zealand, will see plenty of jockeying for places.
"There's no doubt every team needs to be improving, we've spoken about Steve this series, he is the best player in the world and he is still improving," Paine said. "The moment we stop or think we don't have to improve, there is something wrong. We are disappointed the way we played this game but, as a whole series, we had some good moments in a country where Australia hasn't had some success for some time.
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"We can be proud of that but we've got a way to go," he added. "Steve had an unbelievably good series and won us some Tests by himself so we've got some parts we need to improve, but if we click them into gear while he's at the height of his powers and with the pace attack we've got, then in the next few years we are going to be a very hard team to beat."
There was another kind of perspective to be applied to Australia's fortunes. Little more than a year ago, the ODI team had arrived in this part of the world, with Paine as captain and Langer as coach, saying all the right things about balancing performance, culture and improved behaviour. Promptly they had been atomised 5-0, and there were other humiliations to be endured against Pakistan, South Africa and India at home before things began to improve.
A solid upward path since then was aided, of course, by the return of Smith, and if the final presentation had been something of an anti-climax, then the day's emotional high point had surrounded his exit. Smith's score of 23 was his lowest of the series by a distance and more or less guaranteed England's victory. But he was given the most generous standing ovation of his entire time in England, fitting recognition for a commanding but also graceful performance across the summer.
"It was a nice reception when I walked off, it would have been nice if I had a few more runs under my belt in this game ... I've given it my all since I've been here the last four and a half months every Test match we have played and I didn't have much left to give today," Smith said. "I'm pretty cooked to be honest, mentally and physically, and I am looking forward to a nice couple of weeks' rest before getting back into the Australian summer."
This, too, provided a reminder of the lessons from 18 months ago. Back then, Smith had been similarly fried but given only a few days of rest before suiting up again for ODIs and then South Africa where it all went wrong. Australia have not won the series here, but the humbler result is also in keeping with the fact that this is a more humble team learning, day by day, to marry better cricket to better conduct. Paine was able to speak freely about how unlikely this had all been for him, let alone the team.
"I didn't think I'd still be doing it to be honest and here we are," Paine said. "I'm very lucky as I have said a number of times to be in the position I'm in and now to be captain of a team that has come here and retained the Ashes is something I'm sure I'll never forget. We're bringing the urn home and that's what we came here to do, we're thrilled by that.
"We're a little disappointed by this game, obviously, it's put a bit of a dampener on it. But overall, had you said we were taking them home, we would have jumped at it and taken it.
"Right now it's still a bit close to a loss to be absolutely thrilled about what happened. But when you put it in perspective of what we have done in the past 12 months, I think as a group, we can be proud of the way we have come over here. We've got a lot right a lot to be really proud about."
In 2019, Australia came to England and did not lose the Ashes. Whatever the whys and wherefores of a first 2-2 series result between these sides since 1972, that statement will sit well with every member of the team that made it so.