The celebrations of the World Cup triumph were quickly curtailed for many as the squad focus had to swiftly turn to preparations for The Ashes. In a week where the temperature rose to record levels Ireland gave England a good pre-Ashes workout at Lords. The World Cup players were given the option of whether they wanted to rest which Bairstow, Woakes and Ali all declined. Question marks were raised by the England camp over the quality of the pitch for batting as both teams were bowled out for less than a hundred at one point in the match. Therefore carnage was predicted for the upcoming Ashes series as it was clear to see that both teams would have fallible batting line-ups and top class bowlers who could exploit the conditions.
The first test was at what is now becoming the traditional series opening venue in Edgbaston. A ground I’m sure splits opinion due to its gladiatorial boisterous support of England however it is right up my street. When England gets on top in a match and the Hollies Stand gets in full voice behind them it really is a fantastic experience to be part of and important to note the relatively low average age.
Despite the support England appeared to surrender a pretty good position after two and a half days to give Australia an early lead in the series. In the 1st innings England managed to get level with Australia’s score five wickets down with two set batsmen at the crease but only managed to get a lead of 70. This example probably shows you can’t overnight go from a decent test team to a well drilled winning machine that would have probably worked up to a lead of around 150. This coupled with James Anderson’s four overs before he limped off with a calf strain meant a very frustrating week for England who probably felt they left quite a bit out in the middle.
For Australia they looked focused, settled and prepared. Steve Smith’s two hundreds on his return to test cricket indicated his desire to pick up where he left Ashes cricket last time round. The events at Edgbaston only highlighted the thinking that perhaps England over the previous four years had prioritised the World Cup and Australia had been prioritising The Ashes. Playing with the dukes ball in Sheffield Shield cricket back in the Australian summer and resting some key players from the world cup so they were fit for The Ashes appeared to show their priorities.
So onto Lords for the second test match of the contest and with a glance at the whether you may have thought the game would be a non starter because of the incoming rain, how wrong you would be. On day two when the match begun England stuttered their way to an around par score but that did give time for Broad to resume his run against David Warner when he bowled him. The opening day of play as a whole though belonged to the newly created Ruth Strauss foundation which turned Lords red.
The real action on the pitch however didn’t happen till the following afternoon when Jofra Archer on test debut tore in at way above 90mph. It was thrilling test match cricket and credit to the Australian batsmen for facing up to it. The battle between Archer and Smith had been built up beforehand and Archer was appearing to drag Smith out of his bubble that he bats so well in. Smith was hopping around the crease and was hit painfully on the arm until he eventually misread the length of one and ducked into it taking a nasty blow to the neck.
Despite Smith remerging after completing the concussion tests he didn’t look right and a few moments later he let a straight ball from Chris Woakes strike him in front of middle and middle. With the two first innings scores about level England were left a difficult final hour of the fourth day to bat out. At one point in the evening it looked like Australia were heading for a swift victory however the following morning Ben Stokes played one of his counter attacking innings as he made his second century at headquarters. This enabled Joe Root to declare giving England around 45 overs to go and bowl Australia out and level the series. Archer started where he had left of and dismissed Warner quickly and England began to sniff the possibility of an unlikely famous victory. Marnus Labuschagne came in as the first ever concussion substitute in test cricket as Steve Smith’s condition had got worse over night. When Archer hit Labuschagne on the head we thought we might be in for seeing a substitute for the substitute, thankfully though he was fine and went on to make a very calm and composed fifty that saved Australia.
England did get a sniff when Denly superbly caught Tim Paine to leave Australia six down but time was not on their side. Cricket became even more like well, cricket when the umpires declared the light not fit for fast bowling despite the four massive floodlights in each corner of the ground. (Mini rant over). The match then inevitably ended in a draw leaving Australia with a slender lead in the series and England thinking about what might have been had the fifth day not been reduced by ten overs at the start.
Onto Leeds then with the weather supposedly improving, having said that on the first day that wasn’t quite the case. England still managed to find time to bowl Australia out with Archer taking six wickets despite bowling slightly slower. Things then on the start of day two seemed in a good place for England as they went out under clear blue skies. For the fourth time in less than two years however England suffered the loss of all ten wickets in a session and was bowled out way short of three figures.
On the second evening things looked desperate and the finger pointing began up in the press box at what was to blame. County cricket schedules were torn apart and analysed with the ECB on the receiving end of the criticism. In the face of it all though the ECB will probably point to the World Cup being the priority and the impact that it had on English cricket.
England were left miles behind in the game and only to the determination of Stokes bowling nonstop that England were left with only 350 to win. The crowd certainly believed as they cheered the English openers of for lunch unbeaten however in the afternoon things started to look like rather similar to what had gone before. Roy bowled again on one leg unable to keep out a straight ball and his partner Burns soon followed. Rather curiously though Root and Denly did manage to steady the ship and put on 100 together. At the close England were three wickets down and needing just shy of 200, complaints of if only they’d done this in the first innings were reverberating around but hey they were doing it now.
Again like the World Cup final you don’t need me to tell you what happened on that fourth day at Headingley. Cricket fans all over the country will be able to tell you where they were when Ben Stokes was crashing it around to all parts and when Nathan Lyon dropped the simplest of run out chances. It was the emotions of the World Cup final all over again and social media went into overdrive as the winning moment was played over and over again. The Ashes were alive and the series threatened to be a close one and as popular as the 2005 series.
The ten day rest in between test matches defiantly helped Australia regroup and with the return of Steve Smith they were back in business notching up 500 first time round with Smith getting 200 of them. England showed some resistance with the bat as Rory Burns and Joe Root made an impressive stand together however late wickets did somewhat put Australia firmly in control and by the end of day 4 Australia only needed eight wickets to retain The Ashes.
In the end England made them wait due to some handy middle and lower order contributions which pushed the game into the final hour. Had England managed to save the game from such an unlikely situation then the series would be rivalling 1981 and 2005 for drama however though Australia were good money for their 2-1 lead.
The final match was played out under glorious blue sky which did make you wonder what might have been had The Ashes been up for grabs, however England did produce a dominant display which led them to a comfortable victory and drew the series 2-2. Despite the score line Australia still lifted the urn and sprayed some champagne around which was slightly baffling. Maybe if they draw against New Zealand or Pakistan in their summer they’ll demand to still lift the trophy, who knows?
Despite the slightly bizarre ending it had been a breathtaking summer of extraordinary moments and tense finishes. For me it comes in third after the summers of 05 and 81 because those summers were on free to air throughout however it came a lot closer to them then I imagined it would. A time of rest and reflection is certainly needed and in the case of test cricket a time of rebuilding. Questions will need to be asked on county cricket and its place in English cricket and how best to capitalise on the affect this summer has had.