So, 2-2. The perfect, imperfect end that this Ashes series deserved.
Cricket perhaps more than any other sport embraces the concept of the draw that masquerades as something else, its history littered with valiant rearguards that feel like wins for those clinging on and defeats for those resisted – and so in English cricket’s biggest summer it has been only fitting that now both of its main moments have been draws that in reality were something altogether different.
Australia returns home with the urn, a draw was all they needed to retain the Ashes, and yet they must also pack an overwhelming sense of regret with them as well, the chance to win a first Ashes series in England since 2001 spurned at the last hurdle, England’s win at The Oval giving cricket’s most storied rivalry its first drawn series in 47 years.
Ultimately though it was a fitting result, after six weeks of cricket that was at times some of the best of all time and at times bordered on village, with everything else in-between, nothing will separate these sides in the annals of history.
It was Australia who received the ticker tape celebration on The Oval outfield at the series close, but there was more than a touch of the anticlimactic to those scenes, their best chance of winning sport’s smallest prize (in inches if nothing else) for over 10 years, spilled nearly as wastefully as the champagne they somewhat half-heartedly sprayed around on stage for the cameras.
This, after all, was a series where Steve Smith made 774 runs in seven innings, a weight of runs matched only by the number of times the word Bradmanesque was fired in his general direction. It was a series where, short of the time he was literally concussed and should have been nowhere near a cricket field, he never looked like getting out – a batting automaton laying waste to the puny mortals who tried to defy him.
This was a series where the world's number one ranked bowler, Pat Cummins, showed exactly why he holds that title, bagging 29 wickets across five Tests at an average of 19.62, never taking his foot off England’s throat, always returning for another spell, pace never diminished, an inch never given. Josh Hazelwood wasn't far behind, 20 wickets from four Tests at an average of 21.85 – the standouts in a fearsome rotating quintet of paceman that rarely gave England much room for manoeuvre.
And yet despite all that, despite the years of planning and the fact that they entered the series the only side with something approaching a coherent strategy, they still couldn’t win the series, their batting – even with new found hero Marnus Labuschagne’s contributions – found wanting at almost every juncture, that old killer instinct cultivated through the bountiful 90s and early 2000s not there when they needed it.
England on the other hand have completed a series and are no closer to discovering anything like the makeup of their ideal side, their batting lineup an ever changing organism where positions are swapped at will, without seemingly troubling concepts as vulgar as forethought or common sense. They are a side whose premier fast bowler pulled up injured four overs into the first match and played no further part, a side who finished with their latest great opening hope first shunted down the order and then dropped entirely, his spot taken by a man who had first been given a chance almost by accident and then somehow never quite did badly enough to get dropped.
And yet despite all that, despite being bowled out for 67, despite not making 400 once, despite the last four years that have seen them prioritise white ball over the red, they still did not lose the series. They may not quite have known what they were doing at times but when it counted they battled and refused to lie down quietly.
They emergence of the generational talent of Jofra Archer could not have come at a better time, the importance of his lightning speed, both actual and psychologically can scarcely be overstated, and with Ben Stokes’ golden summer continuing, vitally just when a knock that only his freakish talents could accomplish was required, the performances of their teammates proved just about enough – Rory Burns with the bat and Stuart Broad with the ball the most important among them.
2-2 then was the fairest result, a series that neither quite deserved to win and yet neither really deserved to lose either. The perfect scoreline for a thrilling if imperfect series to remember.
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