England’s meek surrender of the Ashes hasn’t just been because of Steve Smith, despite what you’ll be reading in the English media over the coming days. Sure, his 671 runs in three tests has certainly made their task easier, but to think England could have won if he hadn’t been playing would be a huge injustice to the remainder of the squad and, at some levels, a complete disregard for the current levels of ability of this England side.
Australian cricket hasn’t been in a great place since the events of March 2018 and of course the subsequent bans. A first home defeat to India, without the banned trio, left confidence and interest in the national side a little shaky but even before they departed for England the thinking has been clear, plans have been executed and with the return of their best batsman they have thoroughly deserved to return home with the sacred urn.
The introduction of Justin Langer has brought with it a wealth of experience, knowledge and understanding of the demands placed on modern cricketers. A man who has been there, done it and got the T-shirt must bring with him an outstanding appreciation of the game and exactly what is required to achieve success both at home and in overseas conditions.
For this tour he enlisted Ricky Ponting to the coaching staff initially and then added Steve Waugh to the mix just in case anyone was resting on their laurels. It might be 15 years since Waugh retired but even just the sight of him in the dressing room was enough to give me nightmares for several days! Just imagine how a player like Marnus Labuschagne would have felt having guys like this in his dressing room going into the biggest series an Australian or Englishman can play.
Whilst trying to convey this series hasn’t just been about Smith’s runs the batting really hasn’t been anywhere near the levels they’d have hoped for. David Warner has been Stuart Broad’s bunny, Marcus Harris, Travis Head and Cameron Bancroft haven’t done much to suggest they will be part of the side long term but the emergence of Labuschagne means it looks like Smith will have a middle order partner to wreak havoc against bowling attacks around the world for years to come.
Having come into the side unexpectedly after the irregular bounce at Lords had seen Smith concussed, it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if he’d failed. However, he seemed to just pick up where Australia’s previous number four had left off and the conviction of his foot movement along with the correctness of his batting saw him rack up four 50-plus scores in a row and he made batting look easier than anyone else besides Smith throughout the series. He looks, on the evidence of this series, to be a seriously talented batsman.
It was the bowling though that really stood out. Patrick Cummins and Josh Hazlewood will grab the headlines for the number of wickets they’ve taken but collectively Australia have out-bowled England in every test. Langer could clearly see from the outset that bowlers wouldn’t be able to handle all five tests, so their work loads have been managed brilliantly and by rotating his options he’s ensured that someone on the sidelines for one game has then been steaming into the next test fully fit. Of course, it is a luxury to have Cummins, Hazlewood, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle all fit and bowling well at the same time, but often it’s how you utilise what is at your disposal too and Langer has done it magnificently.
We saw at Headingley how Archer looked exhausted from the extremely long spells his captain was making him bowl and as a result he was unable to offer anything like what we’d witnessed at Lord’s on an uneven surface. Sadly, we also saw how a recovering James Anderson was brought back far too quickly, was horribly undercooked and then got injured and has missed the entire series. As the recent film The Edge (a film documenting the rise of the England test side between 2009 and 2012) also demonstrated, it’s how you maintain and look after your players in these series that goes a long way to deciding them. Like many modern sports it is about the squad now rather than merely about the 11 taking the field. Australia worked this out before they’d even arrived in England and that deserves huge credit.
The performances of Cummins and Hazlewood have been exceptional. By taking 24 wickets in four tests, Cummins has cemented his position as the world’s number one bowler. His supreme fitness and control have been immensely impressive and it’s been great to see a guy who has suffered with so many injuries coming back and delivering on the biggest stage. The omission of Hazlewood in the first test seems to have been brilliant management from Langer and as the series has gone on he’s looked better and better. You must also wonder how Australia might have done in the World Cup if he’d been included.
Tim Paine, too, deserves credit. Whilst his captaincy during Stokes’s onslaught at Headingley was poor, he’s generally led the team well and in testing circumstances on Sunday at Old Trafford he remained patient and knew that his bowlers would create chances. I’m not convinced how long he’ll captain this side if he doesn’t start scoring more runs, but he’s dealt with everything thrown at him since he stepped into the breach last March and this success seems like a fitting tribute to the captain.
Being an England at the moment is not a good place to be. The fact that an unchanged squad has been announced for the final test of the series later this week is sadly an indictment of the current setup. Even reading the media coverage is tricky because it’s full of sycophants and friends of the players in the English dressing room and journalists seem to be scared to give honest and objective opinions in case they are confronted by someone at breakfast. However, sometimes you also need to look outwardly before dealing with the coming cull of current players in the hope that we can one day compete with this Australian side on the field.
Australian cricket was at its lowest ebb only 18 months ago and whilst they might not have managed the double here this summer, they’ve walked away with cricket’s biggest prize. Huge credit must go to all the team and the coaching set up for prioritising the most important series of them all over the insignificant slog fest that came earlier this summer. Everything has been planned and whilst the execution might not have been entirely a team effort it would be foolish to look at this achievement and base it all around one man. He’s been outstanding certainly but so have many others.
By Andy Hunter