The awards ceremony saw the two sides vying with one another for most muted celebration. A welcome glimpse of a more competitive contest. England collected the urn on the back of an innings defeat. With the thumping 405-run loss at Lords still fresh in the memory, it took the lacquer off the reliquary.
This series has been described by many cricket writers and broadcasters as extraordinary, and in many ways it has been, but not necessarily as they meant it. It has contained none of the quality or agonising intensity of 2005, for instance. It has been extraordinary much as the Charge of the Light Brigade was extraordinary, but without the magnificence. Someone had blundered, said Tennyson. At the Oval, England continued to blunder, while Cook stood like a rock at the centre of the carnage.
These Ashes have been largely notable for the topsy-turvy results and poor batting displays from both sides. The top echelons of the batting and bowling averages for the series are dominated by the Australians. Based on stats alone, you would be forgiven for thinking Australia had won the series. The Australians must be wondering how they lost them.They’ll be scratching their heads like England scratched for runs. I guess they won the individual battles but lost the collective war. Pretty sure Ed Smith will deconstruct an Aesop fable to explain the whole absurdity of it all.
The third day started with England eight down, but Ali and Wood as the No 8 and No 9 batsmen had, along with Root, topped the home batting averages. The stat tells a story all of its own. Neither lasted too long. Such was the inevitability of continued collapse that the most exciting part of the first forty-minutes’ play was Melinda Farrell’s Twitter promise to run naked around the Oval shouting “give me a banana” if the England innings lasted beyond an hour. Needless to say, her modesty was not compromised. The England tail wagged a little, but it was more of a death rattle really.
The experiment of moving Bell to three in place of Ballance has produced a net benefit to England of around 2.3 runs an innings. At much the same time as Bell was getting out to a snorter from Marsh, Gary Ballance was scoring a century for Yorkshire, and you’d expect him to play, probably at five, against Pakistan. Bell’s drawing heavily on past credit, and you’d think that for him Carey Street is just round the corner from Chancery Lane.
Bairstow could be another casualty. He’s not really shown enough sinew to justify the No 5 berth as a batsman, and, overall, Buttler has failed to be awful enough to justify Bairstow replacing him as wicketkeeper-batsman.
England are going through the Forest Gump stage of their redevelopment – you never know what you are going to get. They’ve thrown off the leg braces but not yet learned to run without falling over. The series has been won courtesy of a few inspired performances during key sessions, particularly from the bowlers. The batting has ranged from the brilliance of Joe Root to the, er, well not much else to be frank. The rest have been a piddle wrapped in an enema. If Lehmann and Rod Marsh had seen selection differently, it could have been a Siddle of a piddle, and the Ashes might have stayed in Australia.
Strong Yorkshire, strong England. Root fails, England fail. Putting some ballast into the batting will be where Trevor Bayliss starts earning his gilded crust. First on the fix list will be the failing opening partnership. Lyth has been on the wrong side of a grim sequence of opening stands – 7, 17, 0, 12, 19, 11, 32, 30 and 19 – and his Test career is over for now, caught Clarke bowled Siddle. He failed to perform the most basic function of an opening batsman: see off the opening bowlers and take some shine off the new ball. The cherry was practically in its cellophane wrapper each time Bell made his way to the middle.
The first notable event of the day was Michael Clarke enforcing the follow-on, the first time he has done so in his career as captain. I guess it was his last chance to stick it on his CV. The other was the innings of Alastair Cook. He was the epitome of gritty concentration. He was Atherton at the Wanderers in 1995. He was Cook in Brisbane, 2010. At a time when England are fitfully looking to the future, Cook has turned the clock back in resurrecting his own career, and he looks the better for it. In the end, he was undone by the comedy bowling of Steve Smith. You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh. It was almost as mirthful as Warner getting out to Moeen Ali. Four times.
When disaster strikes in a circus, they send in the clowns. Jos Buttler and the lower order wore the red noses for England, and while the tail may contain some of our best batters, they never looked like scoring the 130 runs required to avoid an innings defeat.
In the end, England’s relentless red-faced trudge towards ignoble defeat was so well mapped out, even Melinda Farrell couldn’t be arsed to reprise her buff-or-bluff douceur.
For England fans, the series win was the cherry on a decent-enough summer. From a cricket point of view, if this was a good Ashes, then I am a banana!
This article started life as a report on day three’s play. It has been slightly amended to keep things current – Ed.