The ritual is wearily familiar. The Barmy Army’s chants of ‘We are the Army’ give way to ‘The mighty, mighty England’. James Anderson is out in the middle, bat in hand and copious body protection on.
Then it happens: the barrage of short balls which Anderson forlornly endures, while the umpires show no interest in enforcing the two-bouncer an over limit. Defeat was long ago inevitable, but Anderson evades, he pokes and prods, and he defends stoutly — English cricket’s patron saint of lost causes.
And then comes the moment when Anderson edges behind — invariably off a short ball — the Barmy Army sing with a little more gusto and Australia’s victory is secure. It has been a ritual ever since Michael Clarke told Anderson to “get ready for a broken f****** arm” in the last throes of England’s defeat in Brisbane in 2013/14. Nine times since then, England have lost Tests in Australia; in seven of them, Anderson has been there on the field batting when Australia’s victory was secured. His stoicism in the face of impossible odds is a ritual of the crushing England defeat Down Under.
So it was once again at the Sydney Cricket Ground on January 8. After enduring 35 minutes, with tenacity and sheer bloodymindedness, Anderson prodded Josh Hazlewood behind. Immediately he tried to review the decision, only to be told that England had no reviews left: a suitably farcical way for England’s series to end. Australia had won by an innings and plenty, and sealed a crushing 4-0 series victory.
Man of the Series
And so ended the series. For Steve Smith, Australia’s captain and Man of the Series, here were seven weeks of sporting perfection. It was not merely that he scored 687 runs at 137.40, absurd as those numbers are.
It was also the way he made those runs. Smith began the series with the slowest century of his career, a 261-ball grind in Brisbane when England bowled relentlessly outside off-stump to try and quell his scoring. He followed that up with the fastest hundred of his career, a 138-ball dash in the WACA’s final Ashes Test which went a long way to sealing the series; by the time he was done in Perth, Smith had made 239, his Test highest score. There was another century in Melbourne, which ensured that Australia avoided defeat; the only surprise was that he made a mere 83 in Sydney.
The upshot is that Smith is not merely the best Test batsman in the world, but, according to the ICC’s historical rankings, the second best there has ever been. Since his century in Perth in 2013 — which he’s called the moment when “everything just sort of clicked” — Smith averages 74.74 in Tests, with 22 hundreds in 83 innings. His imperiousness extends way beyond Australia, too, as he proved with three wonderful centuries in India earlier this year.
To watch Smith, with his strong bottom-handed technique that holds the bat up towards gully, preparing for deliveries by standing outside his leg-stump before shuffling across his stumps — often to work the ball through the legside, Smith’s great trademark, though he is also as proficient through the covers as batsmen with classical techniques — was a pain for English supporters, and yet also a privilege. More than anything, Smith’s batting is a triumph for a home-spun technique, and the virtues of believing in a self-made game, rather than give in to cricketing orthodoxy.
Yet, it is delusional to imagine, as some have mischievously suggested, that the fate of the series would have been turned had Smith taken up his British passport — his mother is English — and signed with Surrey in 2007. Smith was the most obvious point of difference between the two sides — but far from the only significant one.
Indeed, Australia’s overall superiority over England was even greater in bowling than batting. England mustered only 58 wickets in the series, their second fewest ever in a five-Test series in Australia, above only the 1958/59 tour. While their top wicket-taker was James Anderson — indefatigable and wonderfully skilful and adaptable — four Australians topped his series haul of 17 wickets, all managing over 20.
Three of those bowled with a venom and pace far exceeding anything that England could muster. Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Hazlewood all topped 145kmph consistently; England’s bowlers seldom leaped over 135kmph. Australia’s bowlers bowled with relentless bite, with Cummins, in his first ever home series, the most menacing. Add in his fine lower order batting — he averaged over 40 — and, if only he can stay fit, he seems fated to be one of world cricket’s leading stars over the coming years.
For all focus on pace, Nathan Lyon — at 30, Australia’s oldest bowler, which speaks of the side’s ability to improve in the coming years — was also magnificent as he approached 300 Test wickets. With sharp overspin and bounce, Lyon has found a way to overcome Australia’s lack of assistance for finger spinners. His frugal economy rate — only 2.36 — and penchant for left-handers in England’s middle order allowed Australia’s quicks to be uninhibited in their attacking and, remarkably, meant that all Australia’s wickets came from their frontline four bowlers alone.
England’s ordinary batting
Relentlessly harassed by Australia’s bowlers, England’s batsmen repeatedly made starts on fine batting wickets, yet proved incapable of making game-changing runs: England’s entire team scored fewer centuries than the Marsh brothers alone, who both enjoyed triumphant recalls. Joe Root, for all his excellence and the tenacity he showed in batting on in Sydney after being ill, would have been aggrieved to end the series without a century. Conversely, Alastair Cook managed one monster score — the 244 in Melbourne — but failed to clear 40 in his other eight innings. The pair ended the series within two runs of each other, with ordinarily fine averages of 47. Dawid Malan, England’s great find of the series, who showed adaptability, willpower and a resilient technique, was the side’s top run-scorer.
Though Stuart Broad managed only 11 wickets, and exuded the look of a man who may well not reach the 2019 Ashes, England’s biggest disappointment was Moeen Ali. After a fine Test summer, Moeen began well enough in Brisbane, and then rapidly became a man who seemed overawed and had lost all faith in his game. The raw numbers — 179 runs at 19.88; five wickets at 115.00 — were egregious. Even worse was the skittish nature of his batting, which increasingly resembled that of a lower order hitter rather than the top order player Moeen aspires to be. Moeen had been granted a unique opportunity as England’s main allrounder because of the absence of Ben Stokes. Stokes may play two other away Ashes series but this, aged 26, was likely to be the trip to Australia that occurred nearest his prime. His team-mates were entitled to feel badly let down.
Stokes’ absence had no impact on the crowds: this was the second highest attended Ashes series in history. But it did have an impact on the nature of the cricket, which was too often stodgy, adhesive and predictable. A series run rate of 2.95 also spoke of how some dire pitches — especially that at the MCG which the ICC rated as poor — ravaged the series. It was hard to imagine any new childhood fans being won over by a series played with the handbrakes on. The first Test of the South Africa-India series alone contained more drama — real, rather than the tedious manufactured kind that the Ashes so often brings — than the five Australia-England Tests combined. In totality, this was an abject advert for Test cricket.
Leaving Australia, one thought was unmistakable above all else. If it’s not merely to survive, as it certainly will, but actually to thrive, the product of Test cricket needs to be better than this. Much better.
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