England vs Australia: From Stokes to Smith, concussions to captaincy, 27 things we learned from the Ashes
Naturally, there was a fair bit of derision as the Australians embarked on their celebratory lap of honour at The Oval, the gist of it being: you’ve just drawn 2-2 and got thumped in the last game, you carrots. But amid the mixed emotions of the denouement, deep down everyone understood that they had earned their moment, just as everyone understands the terms of engagement at the outset of any Ashes series. Australia may not have won outright, but they left with exactly what they came for.
Moreover, if ever it’s possible to win a series 2-2, the Australians managed it. They should really have won at Headingley and were on top at Lord’s, which many people forget. Indeed, they were 203-5 in reply to England’s first-innings 258 when Steve Smith was hit in the neck by Jofra Archer. It’s not outlandish to suggest that ultimately, that single delivery proved the difference between 2-2 and 3-1, or even 4-1.
Even so, given their recent history of scandal and turmoil, given their recent history in England - indeed, given everyone’s recent history in England - to retain the Ashes in this country is a formidable achievement. A triumph of planning and preparation, a triumph of strategy and discipline, a triumph of playing to your strengths (Steve Smith, the battery of pace bowlers, the impressive squad depth) whilst doing your utmost to conceal the weaknesses.
Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc. Has a better battery of pace bowlers ever visited these shores? Certainly not since the great West Indies sides of the 1980s. Even the dominant Australian teams around the turn of the century generally only turned up with two or three outstanding quicks, rather than the four or five on display here. And yet perhaps the most remarkable thing is that there were periods when England even dared to match them: Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer had wonderful series, while Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes and Sam Curran all had their moments. The involvement of James Anderson might well have elevated this from a highly entertaining series to a bona fide classic.
But it’s a similar story wherever you look. Next up for England: a tour of New Zealand, where Boult, Southee and Wagner (or possibly Lockie Ferguson) lie in wait. Then to South Africa, where Philander, Rabada and Ngidi could be extremely tasty. Pakistan, Australia’s next opponents, boast Mohammad Abbas, Shaheen Afridi and Wahab Riaz. And we haven’t even mentioned Bumrah and Shami, Roach and Gabriel and Holder, Lakmal or Wood. In short, it’s a pretty terrible time to be an opening batsman.
Better than Bradman? Until he scores a triple-hundred, or spans eras, or dominates attacks around the world as thoroughly as he dominates England (an average of ‘only’ 41 in South Africa, 48 in Asia and 31 in the fourth innings still hints at his mortality), it’s still a tough case to make. If you incorporate all three formats, you could still argue that Kohli is his superior. But what we can say is that at his best, Smith extinguishes hope and opens up the field in a way that evokes Bradman at his peak. He’s still only 30. If he can keep his freshness, and maintain the ruthless hunger that sustained him in this, his first series after the ball-tampering ban, then you can’t rule out further improvement.
Smith was a class apart this summer (Getty)
For James Vince’s run out at Brisbane, read Australia 122-8 at Edgbaston. Knock off the last two wickets and it’s hard to see how Australia can even draw the match, let alone win it. Instead, England made Peter Siddle look like Peter May for an hour, and the spell was broken.
5) Jofra Archer is the real deal.
We knew he could do it with a white ball. We knew he could do it in three or four-over spells. We knew he had a nippy bouncer and a nifty slower ball. But for a player who had never played red-ball cricket above the level of Division Two (although more on that later), this was always going to be the biggest step up. And after missing the Edgbaston Test through injury, Archer proved beyond doubt that he has all the tools to succeed at this level. He can bowl swing and he can bowl seam. He can bowl with his brain and bowl with his blood. He can probe away outside off-stump or bomb a team into submission. He can do it in short bursts or for hours at a time. After the series, Joe Root admitted that he was still learning how to use Archer as a captain. It’s a wonderful dilemma to have.
Archer was magnificent for England (Getty Images)
By the time the year is out, England will have taken the field 51 times in official representative fixtures. That is, to put it bluntly, both a wonder and a disgrace. On one hand, you could put it down to the healthy English touring support that makes them such an attractive draw for foreign boards, the strong domestic demand for international cricket, the political clout of the ECB which secured them hosting rights to the 2019 World Cup, and the ongoing fascination with all things Ashes. And you’d be right. But ultimately, it all boils down to one factor: simple, shameless greed.
By the end of this series, some of England’s players - Root, Stokes, Woakes, Buttler - looked utterly exhausted. Some of them looked exhausted before the start of this series. England’s determination to flog their stars for every last penny of revenue they can squeeze out of them isn’t just a sporting issue: one of injury niggles, shortening careers, psychological fatigue and diminishing returns. It’s a parable for our economy and our society, where old men in suits treat the physical and mental health of the young as their personal property: a resource to be drained and exploited as they see fit.
The present is shaped by the past, and in turn shapes the future. What’s perceived as possible today is influenced by what’s been achieved before; meanwhile, today’s achievements become tomorrow’s benchmark. That’s the real legacy of Stokes’s Headingley innings, in the absence of a series triumph. Because of him, targets of 350-plus will feel just that little more gettable. Tenth-wicket pairs facing certain defeat will keep the miracle of Headingley at the backs of their minds. And so will opposition captains.
That’s also why Perera’s 153 against South Africa, marshalling an unbeaten 78-run last wicket stand for victory, was a greater innings than Stokes’s. Without Perera redefining the boundaries of the conceivable, it’s arguable there would have been no Stokes. Together, they’ve shifted the window, unloaded a little of the mental baggage that often accompanies the fourth-innings chase. This is how sports move forward: by small, thrilling degrees.
Yes, his reviewing is shocking. And yes, he did lose his head a little at Headingley. And yes, he did rather gift England the Oval Test by putting them into bat on a fine surface. And no, it doesn’t look like he’s ever going to score a century again. But Paine also does so many of the important things right: intelligent field settings, timely bowling changes, presence in the field, tidy keeping. He treads the fine line between authority and arrogance that has tripped up so many of his predecessors. He speaks up for his team without shouting about it. And given the circumstances in which he took over, and the trajectory of a career that appeared to be noodling into irrelevance, this is Paine’s achievement as much as anybody else’s. He won’t go down as a great Australian player. But he may just go down as one of their great captains.
Paine joked that he had acquired a new-found respect for umpires after his own DRS shocker this series. And while it was fashionable to criticise some of the more questionable umpiring calls, nobody who grew up watching Test cricket in the 1980s and 1990s could possibly argue that things are as bad as they were back then, when standards were shocking and LBWs would often be given despite pitching two feet outside leg stump. You hardly ever see that sort of howler these days, but what DRS has done is magnify the distinction between human error and machine precision, to the point where umpires are now being judged against impossible ideals. “Oh look, Joel Wilson doesn’t perform as well as a sophisticated piece of multi-million-pound technology,” people moan. “Best replace him with an Englishman or Australian.”
To the statistical purist, it doesn’t quite feel right to allow a team to finish a Test with a different XI to the one that started. But the injury to Smith at Lord’s proved the efficacy of the new regulations: in order to get teams and players to take head injuries seriously, you have to make sure they’re not unduly penalised for doing so. Neutral doctors should be the next step: the decision on whether to withdraw a player for concussion is too important to be left in the hands of team staff.
Smith's concussion was one of the significant moments of the series (Getty)
Two years into the job, Root claims he’s still improving as a captain. It’s one hell of a probation period, and the concern is that any minor improvements to his captaincy are being lavishly outweighed by the increasing scratchiness of his batting. It’s 13 Ashes Tests without a century for him, and a batsman who once threatened greatness is now barely clinging to competence. Some of his dismissals over the last 18 months betray a technique that requires wholesale surgery, the sort of time and focus that England Test captains have never enjoyed.
Root was always the wrong choice as Test captain. Stuart Broad, James Anderson or even Eoin Morgan would have been preferable at the time. Now, England are in danger of compounding that initial mistake by treating the job as Root’s birthright, rather than one that should constantly be earned and re-earned. Root is a fantastic guy, but no more than average as a tactician, and his real worth to the side was always and will always be in his weight of runs. Is Root’s captaincy really so indispensable that England can afford to throw away his talent for match-winning centuries? That’s the way it’s been for a while, and most likely the way it’s going to continue.
And if you don’t believe me, then look at the Australians. Marnus Labuschagne began the year as a rank outsider for the Test squad. After half a season churning out runs in Division Two for Glamorgan, he had not just the local knowledge but the confidence in his game to make the step up. Perhaps it was no coincidence, then, that he looked one of the soundest players against the moving ball. In fact, Australia’s squad went into the Ashes with almost as many Championship games under their belts as England’s - 30 against 49. Half of England’s starting XI at Edgbaston, meanwhile, hadn’t played a single domestic red-ball game all season. It showed.
Labuschagne was excellent throughout (Getty Images)
Hands up: without looking, how many World Test Championship points did Australia and England earn during the series? Well done all of you who answered 56: 24 for each of the two wins, eight for the draw. It may come as a surprise to both teams, then, that New Zealand and Sri Lanka are ahead of them in the fledgling table, despite having just played out a 1-1 draw. Because that series only lasted two Tests, each win was worth a whopping 60 points. It’s a ridiculous system, and one that merely encourages more of the silly little two-Test series that litter the international calendar like dog turds. Longer series are the ultimate test, and while the economics of cricket already militate against them, the ICC shouldn’t be discouraging them further.
Does the Australian Test side still have room for Starc in it? Not on the evidence of this series, where he played just a single Test at Old Trafford. With Australia’s bowling strategy prioritising parsimony, Starc’s habit of dropping in the odd four-ball is seeing him increasingly marginalised. He can expect more of a run during the Australian summer, but at the age of 29, time is not on his side.
The brash, hostile abrasiveness of Australian teams in the past was always sold to us as a double-sided coin: the aggression and the abuse, we were told, was part and parcel of what made them such an effective cricketing unit. As with a lot of sporting self-mythology, this was utter twaddle, and Paine’s side have proved this summer that you can play tough, uncompromising cricket whilst still retaining your sense of humour, your competitive streak and your basic human dignity. By and large - and with the dishonourable exception of the bestial Matthew Wade - they’ve been a joy to watch.
Broad dismissed David Warner seven times in ten innings (Getty)
Be honest: were you one of those who thought Broad was on the way out? You were in good company: having carried the drinks in Sri Lanka and been left out in the West Indies, Broad himself admitted privately at the outset of the series that he wasn’t expecting to play all five Tests. The injury to James Anderson had a bearing, of course, but so did Broad’s own spectacular form: in taking 23 wickets, at a rate of better than one every seven overs, Broad made himself indispensable, and moved to seventh in the all-time Ashes list. Another 11 wickets on the next tour and he’ll be England’s highest ever Ashes wicket-taker. He's a hero, end of.
The irony was that Edgbaston actually was England’s fortress right up until everyone started calling it that. That’s the thing about fortresses: yes, they’re imposing, but that’s what also makes them a target. Talking it up needlessly raised the stakes for a first Test that Australia were far better prepared for, and gave the crowd - normally one of the best in England - license to lapse into unfunny, self-referential attention-seeking.
Headingley was the best atmosphere, but then how could it not have been, given what happened? Old Trafford was probably the most impressive, given the shocking weather and the lack of intrinsic entertainment in watching Smith run up a double-hundred. Even Lord’s, a place where the crowd are usually too busy snacking on picnic eggs to make any appreciable noise, rose to its feet as Archer steamed in for his debut and England pushed for victory. And The Oval offered a fitting send-off: a rousing ovation for Smith and a generous reception for the departing tourists. They’re a lippy bunch, English crowds, but they do genuinely love their cricket.
The crowds were superb all summer (Getty Images)
Few gave Rory Burns much hope of seeing out the series with his reputation intact, let alone enhanced. One flighty century and 390 exceptional runs later, he’s nailed down a place in the team until next summer at least. Few gave Joe Denly much of a hope, either, but he too has earned a run at the top of the order after his stylish 94 at The Oval. These series are a test of character as much as anything else, and against all the odds, both have come through it. Not since Alastair Cook at Trent Bridge in 2007 has an England opener reached 20 Tests. Burns will, and Denly just might.
Jason Roy probably could have straddled the divide, but on the evidence of this series, it’s too late now. Jonny Bairstow, once earmarked for greatness as a Test player, is now a genuine white-ball great but has paid for it in red-ball technique: in staying leg-side of the white ball to open up scoring options over cover, he’s no longer able to align himself with the moving red ball, which is why he keeps getting bowled. Even Jos Buttler, who probably qualifies for the above description, is clinging on to his Test career through gritted teeth.
Ah, you say, but what about Ben Stokes or Chris Woakes or even Joe Root? The difference is that they have been able to develop their red and white-ball games concurrently, without long breaks or shifts in emphasis between one or the other. Perhaps it’s time to admit that, for all but a few insuperable geniuses, the red and white-ball games have now diverged so far that concentrating on one of them, even for a year or two, is likely to scupper your chances in the other.
With a clink of champagne glasses and a cheery farewell, two legends of the commentary box stepped down in tandem at The Oval. Ian Botham has been with Sky virtually since its inception; David Gower moved over from the BBC in the late 1990s and has helmed their Test coverage ever since. Together, they represent not just an era, but hundreds of warm memories.
The timing, however, feels right. Botham’s broadcasting career always owed more to his personality than his expertise: he watched little cricket outside of what he was paid for, and over the years his unsophisticated opinions, buttressed by a bare minimum of research, came to look increasingly anachronistic. Gower, meanwhile, is simply a victim of the times. These days viewers demand razor-sharp analysis and constant insight, rather than the eloquent generalities on which Gower himself was raised, and which would make him a far more appropriate fit for the Test Match Special box, should the opportunity arise.
It was painful watching Moeen during the second innings at Edgbaston: beginning the day with a head-high full toss, his confidence shot to pieces, perhaps as a result of his absence from the latter stages of the World Cup. Moeen is easily gifted enough to make a comeback - his outrageous hundred for Worcestershire in the Blast quarter-final was evidence of that - but when he does so, it’ll need to be in a clearly earmarked role. Because if he can’t bat in the top six, if he can’t hold up an end as a sole spinner, and if he can’t bowl sides out in the second innings on turning wickets, it’s hard to see where he fits in.
It feels like a long way back for Moeen (Getty)
Kallis could do it all as a player, but as he accumulated miles on the clock he realised he couldn’t do it all at the same time. He was too good a bowler not to bowl at all, but equally he was too good a batsman to be buried at No5 or No6. So Kallis struck upon a compromise: he would devote his energies to remodelling himself as a front-line batsman, whilst still chipping in with a few overs to break a partnership or if conditions were particularly suited.
Stokes has a similar decision to make now. His tireless spell on the second evening at Headingley was extraordinary, and England wouldn’t have won without it. But in moving him up to No4 at The Oval, England were tacitly suggesting where they see his future. When he is fit to bowl again, the temptation for Root will be to chuck him the ball and get him to charge in for nine overs on the bounce, simply because he can and because he wants to. But Stokes is far too important with the bat to be England’s workhorse with the ball. Over time, Root should look to restrict him to short, fevered bursts.
It’s interesting that Smith gets cast as the winsome, personable team man and Warner the blithe sociopath. While Smith floats through life in his weird, impenetrable batting bubble, virtually Warner’s entire career can be interpreted as a plea for acceptance: from the system, from the Australian cricketing public, from his team-mates. Smith is just Smith. Warner, by contrast, will be whatever you want him to be: lawless T20 opener, responsible Test opener, unrepentant attack dog, repentant sinner, pantomime villain.
Perhaps that’s why Smith has been able to shrug off his ban, shrug off the boos and return pretty much unchanged. And why Warner - more insecure, more introspective, more aware and more outwardly bothered by what people think of him - has passed through this series in a sort of haze. Unsure of everything, from his role in the side to his status in the dressing room to the location of his off-stump. Against a Kookaburra ball in home conditions, you’d back him to find himself again. But it won’t happen overnight.
Warner endured a forgettable series (AP)
Some of the early calls were a bit iffy. Dom Bess. Recalling Keaton Jennings. Ollie Pope at No4, where he had never batted in senior cricket. But over time, Smith’s zany lateral thinking and Trevor Bayliss’s battle-hardened cricketing instincts have synthesised into quite the combination. We’ll write off Burns and Archer as no-brainers, along with Roy, a decision that virtually everyone advocated at the time. Craig Overton at Old Trafford was a bit of a dud. But of the rest - Denly, Sam Curran, Ben Foakes, Olly Stone, recalling Leach at Lord’s rather than letting Moeen limp through the series - there have been more hits than misses.
From Steve Smith swatting a beach ball to the boundary at Old Trafford, to the Headingley crowd removing their shoes in homage to Ben Stokes, to Jonny Bairstow’s inspired piece of fake fielding at The Oval (arguably his best contribution to the series), to Warner emptying out his pockets in response to the crowd at Edgbaston, to Jofra Archer’s psychic tweets from the past, to the ironic cheers whenever Nathan Lyon caught the ball after Headingley, to the numerous instances of players getting hit in the nuts, to Smith’s hilarious Jack Leach impression (come on, it was quality), this might not have been a vintage Ashes in terms of quality, but it’s been off the scale in terms of laughs.
The grounds have been packed, the crowds have been magnificent, the viewing figures have been strong, and the hoopla generated by England’s incredible win at Headingley helped put Test cricket on the front pages as well as the back. It’s been a golden summer for English cricket, albeit one with a bitter epitaph: good luck, 2020.
The marquee series of the summer against Pakistan, which clashes with the Tokyo Olympics, was always going to struggle to drum up interest even before the ECB decided to kneecap it with the launch of their 100-ball Strictly Come Cricket competition. Live cricket will return to the BBC, albeit not in either of the two formats that England are any good in. Meanwhile, England are scheduled to play just six Tests between January 2020 and January 2021. This summer is often spoken of as a new beginning for English cricket. But it’s worth remembering that every beginning is the end of something else.