As expected England completed their consolation victory over the Aussies at The Oval yesterday. It was never really in doubt. Parallels with Headingley were always misplaced because the pitch at Leeds seemed to improve as the game went on. This surface, on the other hand, was a good traditional cricket wicket. There was always some help for the bowlers and this only increased as the game progressed and the rough expanded. I was confident we had enough once the lead passed 320. And so it proved. Joy! There’s nothing quite like spoiling the Aussies’ going home party.
Having said that, overall it was quite a strange test with an ‘end of term’ feel to it. Mentally I don’t think the Aussies were ‘on it’ having retained the Ashes a few days beforehand. They dropped quite a few catches, Tim Paine made a horrendous error by giving England’s batsmen first use of the pitch, and the Aussies’ attack was weary after spending so much time in the field on day 5 at Old Trafford. I bet Hazlewood and Cummins were spitting feathers when their skipper elected to bowl.
Credit must go to England though for taking advantage after a ropey first day. We didn’t bat very well (again) but Jofra Archer’s 6-62 essentially won us the game. It gave us a priceless lead which, when added to the fact that the Aussies had to bat last, proved decisive. Once Burns and Denly survived the new ball burst, and put fears of another catastrophic collapse to bed, an England win was always on the cards. Credit must go to Stokes and Buttler for cementing that winning position.
Although the Aussies were never likely to chase almost 400 to win, the bowlers still had to go out there and seal the deal. And they did this quite effectively. Stuart Broad’s 4-64 led the way – he’s been absolutely immense this series – and the spinners did the rest (as one might expect on a wearing pitch). I didn’t think Jack Leach was quite at his best but he bowled well enough to finish with 4-49 off 22 overs. Joe Root also chipped in with a couple of wickets.
I was really pleased for Leach. Although Moeen Ali had his moments for England I was never confident about his ability to polish off the opposition in the 4th innings. He often seemed to freeze. Leach, however, performs this role for Somerset all the time. And consequently he seemed to handle to pressure at lot better. The delivery that got Labuschagne was a beauty.
The big advantage Leach has over Mo is that he offers control; therefore he keeps the batsmen under pressure even when he’s not quite getting the loop, drift, and spin he’s capable of. There were times yesterday when I wanted Leach to give it more of a rip but in the end it didn’t cost us. He kept the batsmen honest and eventually his patience paid dividends. On wearing pitches it’s usually only a matter of time before one turns sufficiently to induce an edge. Your spinner just has to land the ball in the right areas often enough.
So how do I feel after England’s win yesterday? The words happy but thoughtful probably sum it up best. It’s quite delicious that Australia still haven’t won an Ashes series on our shores since 2001. However, at the same time we can’t ignore the fact that they’re still returning home with the urn safely tucked away in Cameron Bancroft’s jockstrap (or wherever they like to keep precious items). It’s job done as far as Justin Langer and Co are concerned.
What’s more, I’m a bit worried that some England supporters seem to think that a 2-2 result is a success. I saw one particularly misguided comment on Twitter (which had inexplicably been liked and retweeted by hundreds of people) claiming that a draw against a side containing the best batsman and bowler in the world was a triumph.
This view is naive nonsense, of course. England didn’t draw against Viv Richard’s West Indians or Steve Waugh’s Australians. We drew against a team which, like us, has plenty of bowling firepower but only a couple of test quality batsmen. It really wasn’t a vintage Aussie team. And one of their two gun players, David Warner, was clearly experiencing a highly amusing technical crisis.
It’s worth reminding everyone that England were big bookies’ favourites at the start of this series. But the bottom line is that we failed to win. And given England’s abysmal recent record down under the Aussies are now likely to keep the urn until 2023. If you’re happy with that then I politely suggest that you reassess your expectations. Many of us saw this disappointment coming but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow
What’s more, I don’t think too many people would argue that a 2-2 scoreline flattered us. Our victories came courtesy of a Ben Stokes miracle in a game the Aussies dominated, and then a victory in a dead rubber. Personally I think a 1-3 result would’ve been a fairer reflection of the balance of power. And a 1-3 scoreline would’ve been considered an unmitigated disaster.
I’m also slightly concerned that yesterday’s consolation victory will paper over the cracks somewhat. English first class cricket is in crisis. We’ve got our worst test batting line-up for decades (a team that routinely gets bowled out in less than a session), and the cupboard of emerging red ball talents has never been so bare. The ECB seem to care less and less about first class cricket, and The Hundred is just going to make things worse.
I’ve heard people argue that our batting was no worse than Australia’s – and that Steve FFS Smith was the only difference between the sides – but why should this be any consolation? Why should we turn a blind eye to big problems just because the Aussies are having issues too? It’s like arguing that the NHS doesn’t require extra investment because the French system has flaws too.
The worry after yesterday, of course, is that the ECB and the selectors will spin a 2-2 result as evidence that everything the garden is rosy. And many people – like the aforementioned fan on Twitter – will swallow it. This means the marginalisation of the county championship is more likely to continue.
This is a time where cricket’s community of supporters needs keep the pressure up – to tell the ECB in no uncertain terms that we’re unhappy with the way they’re administering our sport. Unfortunately, the more people who are happy with performances and results, the less likely this message is to resonate. And the more people who are happy with this 2-2 draw (even thought we effectively lost the Ashes) the more likely we are to get absolutely obliterated when we tour Australia in the 2021 Ashes.
Ed Smith might even kid himself that yesterday’s win in a dead rubber somehow justifies his madcap approach to selection – even though the vast majority of his headline picks disappointed big time in this series: Roy averaged 14 and Buttler 25. This is clear evidence that putting faith in white ball players simply isn’t working. The two newish picks with red ball pedigree (Burns and Denly) comfortably outperformed their flashier and much-hyped colleagues.
But perhaps it’s unfair to look at this series as an overwhelming negative. Although the disconnect (some might say conflict) between the board and the supporters is a major concern moving forward, and Ed Smith needs to adapt his contrarian philosophy, some genuine positives did emerge.
The aforementioned Rory Burns showed a ton of courage and at least one place at the top of the order now seems secure. What’s more, Jofra Archer is clearly going to be an absolute superstar. Suddenly a future without Jimmy Anderson doesn’t look so bleak.
The performances of Stuart Broad, who took 23 wickets in the series, were also encouraging. He bowled with pace and rhythm consistently for the first time in a long time. He looked fresh, fit, and remarkably sprightly for a 33 year old. Keep this up and he’s certainly got a couple of years left at the top.
We’ll discuss all the individual players in more detail in the coming days. Inevitably we’ll have to discuss Root’s position too – both his batting position and his position as captain. Joe’s return of 325 runs at 33 was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the series, and his captaincy was iffy to say the least. Would it serve the team better for him to focus on his batting and return to the ranks?
Before I sign off, I’d like to quickly acknowledge the departures of David Gower and Ian Botham from the Sky commentary team. I’ll really miss them. Although Beefy wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea I really liked him – mainly because he spoke his mind and he was really nice to me when I met him at Lord’s a while back.
Replacing Gower with Ian Ward also seems incredibly odd. Although old Lubo often seemed so relaxed that he was almost horizontal (to coin one of his favourite phrases), and his penchant for understatement occasionally grated, he also had the capacity to be incredibly insightful.
People sometimes forget that Gower is an incredibly intelligent man who knows a hell of a lot about cricket. He was also the second smoothest man in the history of sporting television after Des Lynam.
Ian Ward is alright – although I sometimes think he’s a bit blokey and comes across as Richard Hammond light – but he’ll never have the gravitas of Lord Lubo. In my opinion Sky have made a mistake.