England did their best to prevent it but this time there would be no stay of execution, at 6:15 pm local time. the final blow came — Craig Overton trapped LBW by Josh Hazelwood, game over, the Ashes retained by Australia.
It had been a day of steadfast defiance, Overton and Headingley folk hero Jack Leach saw off 26 overs worth of deliveries just between themselves, but in the end, it only delayed the inevitable, the Ashes would be returning to Australia and ultimately deservedly so.
The white-ball half of England’s big fat summer of cricket might well have gone to plan, but with a red one, things have been far from as smooth; Ben Stokes’ Headingley miracle papering over the cracks of a Test series that the hosts were fortunate to still be in contention for.
But where did it all go wrong for Joe Root’s men? What were the key factors that led to sport’s smallest trophy returning to Australian shores once more?
Perhaps first and foremost England will rue the misfortune that saw James Anderson pull up injured having bowled just four overs in the first Test, not just because it deprived them of the leader of their attack and star man in home conditions, but also because it threw their plans at Edgbaston into disarray so early in proceedings.
Anderson is deadly in English conditions and has only seemed to improve over the past couple of summers, the loss of his craft and experience over the course of the series was undoubtedly a huge boost to Australian hopes.
On the other side of the coin, England came up against the immovable Steve Smith. The reinstated number one batsman in the world has been in irrepressible form in this series, racking up 671 runs from just five innings, either side of missing a Test and a half through a concussion.
In short, he has been phenomenal and England have looked clueless as to how to get him out, he has passed 50 in every innings he has made in this series, the alchemist who turned a potential first innings disaster at Edgbaston into a comfortable victory, a moment from which Australia have scarcely looked back.
England though have had problems of their own making and chiefly with the bat in hand. One bright spot has been that Rory Burns has seemingly nailed down one of the opening slots. However, at the other end, things have been a mess — the Jason Roy experiment has not been a success, even with a minor improvement lower down the order at the Old Trafford, he is averaging 13.75 in the series.
The way in which the Roy situation has been handled, culminating in his move lower down the order in this Test, is ultimately fairly symptomatic of England’s general lack of a coherent plan with regard to the overall make up of their side. Perhaps it is no surprise that Burns has been one of the few England batsmen to do well in this series, at times he has been about the only one batting in his preferred position.
Root has been moved to three, a position he has publicly stated he doesn’t like, Denly shifted to four and then to open, Stokes, Buttler, and Bairstow all swapped around as well — the sense of any sort of well thought through planning as elusive as the big totals needed to consistently win Test matches.
This has been another of England’s big failings, not once have they passed 400 in the series, twice they have failed to make 200, including the debacle of 67 all out at Headingley. This is far from a new problem but remains one they are no closer to fixing. For all the talent they may possess in their line-up, so far it has flattered to deceive on the Test stage. They were fortunate to get away with it last summer against India, in part down to some plucky lower-order fightbacks, this time around they have not been so lucky.
By way of mitigating circumstances, England have come up against a superb Australian bowling attack, who have made the most of resting and rotating a fine quintet of pacemen who at times have all tested their opposition. Chief tormentors, however, have been the peerless Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood, who have been phenomenal throughout the series, making life extremely difficult for their opponents.
After the disappointment of Old Trafford, England now must look to The Oval for retribution. The Ashes may be gone but the chance to level the series is not, the areas they must improve are fairly clear for all to see, whether they are able to do so remains another matter entirely.
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