It is the first week of February, Australia has just defeated Sri Lanka 2-0 at home, Tim Paine's first series win as a captain. After the match, Paine was asked when would he start planning for the Ashes? The reply was rather emphatic "About six months ago, I’ve been dreaming about it actually."
Two hundred and sixteen days later, Paine’s childhood dream has been accomplished on Sunday at Old Trafford. The Ashes had been retained.
Paine had succeeded at a task that even captains such as Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke couldn't achieve. Eighteen months ago, Paine was contemplating retirement, now, his name is engraved into Ashes history – becoming the leader of men that broke an 18-year drought of winning the coveted Urn in England.
This has been an epic victory built on an outstanding game plan, vigilance, formidable work ethic and a genius – Steve Smith. A lot of credit must go to Justin Langer. He has typified the role of a modern-day coach by building a culture that has enabled the players to prosper.
Before landing in England for the World Cup, Langer took the squad to the battleground of Gallipoli in Turkey. A historic place where more than 8,000 Australian troops died in the First World War. As Langer said at the time “It's very sobering, and it was an incredible life experience for the boys, and also it gelled the team together with different experiences and interpretations of our history." This was all part of Langer's plan to create camaraderie and unity while playing for a nation.
But perhaps the most important aspect was the game plan that Langer wanted to implement. In the 2013 and 2015 losing campaigns, Australia had decided to back their aggressive brand of cricket, but this time around that approach had to be shelved. The focus from playing booming cover drives was replaced by the virtue of patience and building a sound defense in coach's game plan which Langer wanted all his batsmen to follow. Some were going to fail, but it is important that the malfunction was not a result of a poor attitude and a deviation from the original game plan. How many Australian batsmen perished to poor shots? How many pushed with hard hands and edged balls in the cordon? How many tried to hit themselves out of trouble? Fair to say the sample size is very small at least compared to the previous sojourns to England.
England was never going to be an easy place to bat, so Australian batsmen had to put a price on their wicket. There were to be no easy gifts, even though it felt like it when David Warner confronted Stuart Broad every time. But each Warner failure was revived by the immovable presence of Steve Smith.
After all planning and hard work, Australia needed an executioner. Could Australia have regained the Ashes without Smith’s masterclass? The blunt answer is – No. Smith scored 30% of Australia's runs in this series, after having missed a Test and a half, to say he was the difference between the two sides is laying a bare fact. Above all, it is his sheer presence that has left the English agitated, frustrated and despondent. After dealing with him three Tests, England think tank is still unclear on how to dislodge him. It is a testament to Smith that he keeps evolving his game and as Langer said ‘he is the best problem solver he has ever seen'. Smith has catapulted the batting, along with Marnus Labuschagne, who has been extremely impressive in his debut Ashes series. Apart from Smith, Labuschagne and to an extent, Matthew Wade, Australia's batting has still looked suspect, which is papered by their high class bowling ensuring that even scores of 300 have looked competitive.
The plan of Australian bowlers in the past have opted to blast away the opposition with pace, while in this series, it has been more about suffocating the opposition. Boundary balls had to be minimized and discipline line and lengths had to be maintained. Langer knew from the start that to maintain such high standards, bowlers had to be rotated and played according to conditions.
How many coaches would have been bold enough to select a playing XI of an opening Ashes Test without Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc? It was a brave strategy, but one Langer believed had to be implemented if Australia were to regain the Ashes. Despite all the changes and amidst the heartbreak of Headingley, the vociferous English crowds, and the pressure of not winning the Ashes in England since 2001 – the Australian dressing room exemplified true unity.
Australia's success was built on Smith's run gluttony, Hazlewood and Cummins' impregnability that coalesced under Paine's leadership while applying Langer's game plan to regain The Ashes. However there is little doubt that the tourists will want to return home not just with the Urn but a series win as well. Given all the evidence, it is difficult to see how England can prevent them.