Tour review

England v Australia, 2019

Geoff Lemon

Test matches (5): England 2 (56pts), Australia 2 (56pts)

Before a contest, the participants often scuffle for the designation of underdog. There is a power to being unfancied: it lessens expectation and, especially in team sports, cultivates a sense of embattlement that can help form solidarity, a group against the world. Where boxers are obliged to talk themselves up, captains tend to talk themselves down, citing the (inevitably world-class) quality of their opponents, lacing their speech with qualifiers, pleading that their own side can hope to win only by completing to perfection every step of an undisclosed process.

In the Ashes of 2019, both England and Australia seemed like underdogs. That may defy the dictates of logic, but in advance each team appeared irretrievably flawed, straining against their own shortcomings even before the opposition arrived to exert any force the other way. With each passing Test, this apprehension was borne out. A series win for either side would have come in spite of limitations, not by transcending them. A draw, the first in the Ashes since 1972, felt entirely apt (though the new ICC Test Championship scored it 56 points apiece).

Yet this was no dull stalemate. It was exhilarating. The lasting impression was not of poor quality, but of pure anarchic fun. Sporting audiences say they want to see the best standard of play, but most of all they want to see a level fight. Here were teams evenly matched. And in their struggle came a few truly outstanding performances worthy of any era. Each of the first four Tests was defined by a single player: Steven Smith at Edgbaston, Jofra Archer at Lord's, Ben Stokes at Headingley, Smith again at Old Trafford, his return after concussion ensuring the urn's destination.

The flaws, it must be emphasised, were strictly in the batting. Ahead of the series, each team boasted a blue-chip bowling attack. England had the vast experience of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, both enjoying a late-career bloom, and a class operator of swing in Chris Woakes. Losing Anderson to injury after just four overs was a blow, but then came Archer - a revelation after qualifying from his native Barbados just in time for the World Cup, where in a few games he had become England's most important short-form bowler. His big-stage delivery, and record in first-class cricket, accurately predicted he was just as capable of an impact in Tests.

Australia, meanwhile, had finally got the band together. For several years, there had been a messianic promise of an unprecedented bounty of pace - proper pace, nostril-tingling stuff, via four young quicks who had been tracked through school ranks and onto the international scene. James Pattinson, furious outswingers, a five-for on Test debut; Mitchell Starc, the left-arm equivalent, crashing through the 2015 World Cup; Josh Hazlewood, the most accurate, using his height for extra bounce and movement; Patrick Cummins, perhaps the fastest at first, maturing into the most dangerous and relentless of the lot. Never, though, had all been available at once. Each had missed years to injury - stress fractures of the back most commonly, the market price of pace, but also muscle strains and broken toes and training mishaps, their bodies pushed to the limit. Not until the 2017-18 Ashes had even three been available - Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood demolished England 4-0. Finally, in the last year of the decade that had begun with talk of them, all four were fit. Add the canny Peter Siddle after a productive summer and a half at Essex, and offspinner Nathan Lyon, poised to pass Dennis Lillee's 355 Test wickets, and Australia had a formidable ensemble.

The two attacks would take on batting orders made of rice paper: fragile, soluble and, like the wrapping of a Vietnamese roll, transparently unable to conceal the raw jumble within. England had been searching for Alastair Cook's new opening partner ever since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012; in the end, Cook retired too, leaving them in need of two replacements. The No. 3 spot had lacked a regular tenant since Jonathan Trott in 2013. All three places had seen a flood of contenders.

For 2019, Surrey captain Rory Burns rose to the surface, a left-hander who faced up with a mangled stance that suggested he had just tumbled down three flights of stairs, and Jason Roy, whose buccaneering had worked wonders in the World Cup, but didn't translate to Tests. Joe Root as captain was most comfortable at four, but now bowed to the Australian orthodoxy of his coach, Trevor Bayliss, that the best player must bat at three. Joe Denly, initially in the frame as a Twenty20 handyman, somehow took Root's old spot, before displacing Roy as an opener. Then came a flurry of all-rounders: Stokes was a certainty, but his best position wasn't clear; Moeen Ali tended to freeze in Australian headlights, and was dropped after the First Test; Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler were wicketkeepers and attacking batsmen who seemed like luxury picks on their own, never mind together. Bairstow's Test form had waned, but he curled a lip territorially at suggestions he might concentrate on one discipline, and give up the gloves. He averaged 23, and was later omitted from the Test squad for New Zealand.

For Australia, Smith and David Warner were a different kind of gamble. The former captain and vice-captain had been banned after their 2018 ball tampering adventure, and first returned for the World Cup, where Warner in particular flourished. Neither had played a Test in 16 months. But their records - 44 centuries between them - demanded inclusion. Their Cape Town collaborator, Cameron Bancroft, was recalled on the less convincing grounds of second-division county runs and a squad practice match.

The other batsmen starting at Edgbaston were Usman Khawaja, who had never imposed himself on the Ashes in a decade of trying; Travis Head, routinely loose outside off stump; and Matthew Wade, picked as a specialist for the first time, having previously been dropped as a wicketkeeper for want of runs. His then-replacement, Tim Paine, had in the interim become Test captain, but boasted only one first-class century in a career dating back to 2005. Spare in the squad were Marcus Harris and Marnus Labuschagne, both without a Test hundred, and Mitchell Marsh, whose two in 2017-18 had been a brief flash among years of batting mediocrity.

The mismatch of capability between bat and ball was clear on the field. Each opening partnership was a handful of dust. Broad monstered Warner (who scored 61 of his series aggregate of 95 in one innings); every Australian bowler monstered Roy (who shifted down the order, then out of the side altogether). At Birmingham, Burns made one of the luckiest hundreds seen in Tests, a loose collage of false shots. Bancroft was dropped after two games for Harris, who played even worse, but had no one left to replace him. The original No. 3s fared little better: Khawaja was ousted by Labuschagne, who at Lord's had initially been Smith's (and Test cricket's first) concussion substitute; Root, having never made a golden duck in Tests, made two in three, and in between fell second ball, also for nought.

England were shot out for 146 at Edgbaston and 67 at Headingley. Australia avoided such abject scores thanks only to Smith, who top-scored six times in seven attempts: three centuries, three near enough. He missed three innings with concussion and still finished with 774 runs; only Don Bradman (twice), Viv Richards and Everton Weekes had scored more in a series from so few innings. Not until the end was he prised out for under 80.

Stokes carried England more dramatically, if less consistently: some epic bowling spells, two fifties, two unbeaten hundreds, including - with the improbable help of the bespectacled No. 11, Jack Leach - the miracle to flip the Headingley embarrassment. No matter the destruction Australia's bowlers had wrought in the first innings: their batting without Smith couldn't close England out. The thrills of that final day sent electricity coursing through the series: Stokes in glorious sunshine, with zero margin for error, launched six after six into the Western Terrace as though mistiming a ball was a concept he had never come across. Panicking, the Australians bowled erratically and challenged decisions incorrectly; Harris missed a tricky catch, and Lyon a simple run-out that would have given them the game - and the series. Despite England needing 73 when their ninth wicket fell, Stokes charged down 359, joint-ninth-highest successful chase in Test history.

Support for both champions came via scattered cameos. Root made four fifties among the ducks. Though Burns often failed, he sometimes found a way, and averaged 39. Labuschagne, having enjoyed a prolific stint with Glamorgan, filled in creditably for Smith, scoring four half-centuries in a row. Wade bookended the series with hundreds, though in between scarcely found a run.

A final aspect that stayed with the observer was the spirit of play, manifestly better than in so many previous Ashes. There was still the odd flashpoint but, given the worldwide chastisement of Australia's cricket culture after Cape Town, and the damning results of cultural reviews commissioned by their administrators, a public-relations effort had to be made. Paine pursued it with determination, and set a standard. Some moments still grated, like Wade's tasteless chuntering into the stump microphones, and the Australians' belligerent celebrations after retaining the Ashes at Old Trafford. But it was an improvement on the pantomime aggro that had marred 2017-18.

Often, a post-mortem is unduly affected by how the chips fall. Plenty of scribes had written that England were much the better team in 2013 - though Australia had lost two likely wins to rain. This time, after Australia went 2-1 up, various outlets in both countries argued they had been demonstrably better. But for the Stokes miracle, they said, the scoreline would have been 3-0.

Yet, without two days of rain at Lord's, England would probably have won there; had Smith not been present, they might have won everywhere. Effectively, an Australian team with one-and-a-half batsmen took on an England team with one-and-a-few-different-halves of a batsman. Neither was better than the other, but Australia could retain the trophy with a draw, and they managed not to lose their nerve in the Fourth Test after fumbling so drastically in the Third.

So what was the wash-up? If England had managed one more win in the first four matches, the teams could have gone into the fifth for a winner-takes-the-urn contest, and the series might have been a classic. Had England then won, it would have sat alongside their delirious escape in the World Cup final. Had Australia held England off at The Oval, retaining the trophy would have felt more like victory than anticlimax.

Instead, Australia's defeat there ensured the series was neither one thing nor the other. Taking the Ashes home was a major coup, given that stronger teams had failed on four previous visits. It was especially significant for Paine, who had been appointed emergency captain when Smith was suddenly sacked, yet a year and a half later had made the team his own. A player of modest ability, but a person of substantial calibre, proved the leader Australia needed. His biggest achievement was making sure his team didn't fall apart after conceding the Headingley Test, where Lyon's blunder could have thrown them into disarray. On the contrary, the Australians held their nerve when England took the next Test, in Manchester, into the final hour. While some commentators blew up the significance of Smith influencing field settings, Paine's ownership of the team went well beyond on-field tactics.

Those losing Australian sides from 2005 onwards, though, had also faced a far stronger England than this one. The triumphant summer of English dreams - an Ashes-World Cup double - had not been realised, but England could still say that no visiting Australian team had won since 2001. The span is guaranteed to grow to at least 22 years.

Transcending the dross or sense of anticlimax, though, were moments of awe. Smith, on the first day of the series, walking back into the hardest format of the game after more than a year out, taking on a swinging ball and a heckling crowd - and rescuing a collapsing team - to make the best hundred of his career, an innings that swelled in authority and flourish as the sun grew lower. Stokes at Headingley, words that will long evoke the mayhem and glory of the last day. Smith again in Manchester, batting for so long that only he could initiate his dismissal, reverse-sweeping part-time spin. (When told he had twice been out to Root that way, following Lord's in 2015, Smith cheerfully fired back that both dismissals had come after a double-century.) Cummins and Hazlewood, also in Manchester, never letting batsmen draw breath, unleashing a tireless bombardment despite the aches, and finally dislodging England on the fifth evening when a draw was in sight.

Perhaps most of all, there was Archer: his lithe run and casual menace in one of cricket's most memorable debuts, just when Smith looked set to make another match his own. He produced a spell - one of the fastest recorded for England - that first thrilled, then frightened, pushing batsmen to the limit and the speed gun past 96mph. It shocked a Lord's crowd into silence under dramatic skies, and left Smith face down on the turf. Cricket lives in the moment: slow-motion electricity, for those who were there to pass on to those who will hear about it in years to come. Beyond struggles or failures or a drawn scoreline, these are the parts that will live on.

© John Wisden & Co