By the end of August 2013, at Durham, England had won the Ashes for the 3rd consecutive time, for some of their players, their 4th time in an Ashes winning squad. For the Australians, it was another tour ending in the most horrible circumstances. The loss at Durham had extended their win-loss ratio of Tests in 2013 to 7 Tests lost away and one drawn. This equation was not exactly expected with how close they came to winning in Old Trafford (had the weather not intervened) and how they completely weren’t able to get over the line in Trent Bridge and Chester-Le-Street. England had realized by the time they came to the Oval to try and win this summer Ashes 4-0, a scoreline never successfully achieved by any English captain, that they had huge amounts of luck and grit on their side considering their highest scorer of the series, Ian Bell, was the only man who scored centuries consistently, Joe Root being the other centurion. Australia on the other hand, had Shane Watson, Michael Clarke, Chris Rogers and even David Warner coming close to that big 100. England knew that during the Oval match, Australia will not spare them Down Under and they needed to be ready.
Australia under Darren Lehmann during the limited overs series in England looked a different side. Confident, able to handle pressure and good performances, both individual and team, they looked to be ready to handle anything that came their way. A rather unnecessary limited overs series in India where the runs flowed and they rested their main bowler, Mitchell Johnson for the deciding match in Bangalore, considering the fact that they needed him for the Ashes Down Under and the entire point of the series was to become No.1 in the ODI rankings wasn’t possible at that point. Could this have been the possible turnaround that everyone was talking about? Australian players were able to get a couple of Sheffield Shield games under their belts while the visitors had to suffice with only 1 complete tour game against Western Australia which they drew because the other two fixtures weren’t completed due to rain (in November in Australia).
There was a lot of chatter about which the better-prepared team was and retired Aussie spinner Shane Warne and Ashes winning former English captain Michael Vaughan decided to come out of retirement for this specific purpose of pre-match sledging. But both captains, Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook, were prepared to do their talking on the field. Sadly only one captain and one team turned up for the match in Brisbane and it wasn’t the one that the Barmy Army supported. England were considered favourites not only for the Brisbane Test but for the Ashes as they began their campaign in spectacular fashion with a record saving 517/1 in the second innings to end the first Test at the Gabba with a draw. Alastair Cook’s double century and Steven Finn’s 6 wicket haul set the tone for the rest of the series in 2010-11 which they ultimately won 3-1, losing the only Test in Perth. This Test however begin slightly differently.
Brisbane – 21st to 25th November, 2013
Australia won the toss and decided to bat. Stuart Broad, fresh off playing almost no cricket save for a couple of T20s, a Yorkshire Bank 40 final with Nottinghamshire and the tour matches, picked uo a 5 wicket haul as the hosts were reduced to 100/5. Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson took their team from the brinks of a collapse to a respectable total of over 260, Haddin being run out in trying to complete his century. Then was to come one of the most spectacular batting collapses of all time. Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen all fell to short balls and fast, accurate bowling by Johnson with able support from Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris. In fact, the England innings wrapped up at 132 all out with Michael Carberry, making his Ashes debut and Broad being the highest scorers in their team. The second innings began awfully with David Warner and captain Clarke scoring centuries to take Australia to a lead of over 500 which the English couldn’t even score half of and Johnson did the rest, taking 3 more wickets to give Australia their first Test win since the win against Sri Lanka in December 2012 by a whopping 381 runs, a day early. England, humiliated in defeat, suffered another setback as established no.3 batsman Trott announced that he was suffering from depression and wouldn’t take any further part in either the Ashes tour or any upcoming series to try and find the reason why he loved the game. So from after the 1st game itself, England and Andy Flower needed to rebuild themselves in their batting, attitude and find a new no.3 – Ian Bell, a prolific no.5 or Joe Root, whose original position is batting at no.6 but has been tried out as an opener and done average.
Adelaide – 5th to 9th December, 2013
The site of the first win in the epic 2010-11 series for England and the site of a possible turnaround was there but not decided when they announced that they were going to play two spinners, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. Stats had been brought out that except for the recent Ashes series and the 2012 series in Pakistan, England have always come back to win the series after losing the first Test – an example would be the series in India where they came back from the humiliating loss in Ahmedabad to come back strongly in the remaining three game, especially scripting a wonderful win at Mumbai. Again here Australia won the toss and posted a huge total of 570 with Haddin and Clarke again in the centuries while Harris, Shane Watson and Chris Rogers chipping in. The bowlers did an average job what with Chris Tremlett who was picked for the first Test being dropped for Panesar. In reply, England managed 3 double figure scores with Carberry and Bell getting half centuries and Johnson literally cutting the tail off starting with debutant all-rounder Ben Stokes. Australia, having already secured a sizeable lead, declared at 132/3, putting England in to bat with a target of 531 on the board to level the series. With two days to go and their captain out, Root and Pietersen set about defying Johnson and his army to put up a strong 50 run partnership before both were out and England ended Day 4 with Broad and an out-of-form but regaining confidence Matt Prior at stumps. No team has even won a Test being 6 wickets down and this was no different as England crossed 300 for the first time since the Lord’s Test in July where their thrashing of Australia seemed an anomaly at that time and now looked rather lucky as the hosts took an unassailable 2-0 lead beating England by 210 runs, this time.
Perth – 13th to 17th December, 2013
The one match that Australia won in the last series was to be the one that would hand over the precious urn back to the hosts after 3 successive series defeats since 2007. The Australian innings started rather shakily with a good run-out of Rogers and the quick wickets of Watson and Clarke. But Steven Smith stayed with Warner to build a good partnership and play a mature innings which saw him score his first century. It then saw an England performance that had only 2 out of the top 5 batsmen score single figures with Cook getting a gutsy half century only to get out against the run of play giving Australia a lead of only a 150 runs. This meant that when Australia came out to bat the second time, Warner and Watson both scored centuries in a manner not unlike their IPL playing days, just swinging and slogging almost every ball and Clarke declared at 369/6 giving England their 3rd consecutive 500+ total to chase, the first time it has ever happened in a Test series ever played between any two countries. This time another debutant stepped up as Ben Stokes got his first century and almost….Almost gave English fans back home some hope of atleast beginning their resurrection of this dreadful tour with good partnerships with Bell, KP and Prior. This time though, the tail again collapsed giving Australia back the Ashes with 150 runs as the winning margin. Another victim was claimed as Graeme Swann announced his retirement citing both not being able to win the Ashes again and recurring problems with his elbow for the reason. Many commented labelling this pull-out of England’s most successful spinner and most charismatic cricketer for years to come as ‘cowardly’ and ‘ungraceful’ whereas in my opinion, Swann decided to step out of the way when he gave away runs at a higher rate than he took wickets. His special ability was to take wickets or atleast stem the flow of runs when the pacers were being taken for a ride. Another interesting fact about this match was that Rogers hit James Anderson for a record 28 runs with 2 sixes and 2 fours, the only other person to do was Brian Lara.
Questions were raised by many former English cricketers including former captains Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss and prolific all-rounder Geoffrey Boycott on the lack of good fast and accurate bowling not unlike the lynchpin of Australia’s bowling attack, Johnson. Commenting on Flower and David Saker, England bowling coach, bringing 4 tall quicks that included Broad, Finn, Tremlett and Boyd Rankin but using only one consistently and one for the first Test although Finn was their most successful bowler in the 2010-11 series but not having played a Test since the hammering he took from Haddin in the first Test at Trent Bridge that almost brought Australia close to victory if it hadn’t been for Anderson’s burst. The good news was that Tim Bresnan was back to some sort of good form and would be able to pepper the cracks that would be caused by Swann’s absence. The focus for Cook and his team was to improve morale and take something away from this Test series besides voluntary retirements, burn-outs and sacking of responsible personnel. Changes had to be made and it was better that the MCG would be the site of that turnaround, albeit late in the series, at the same place where England retained the Ashes in the last series.
Melbourne – 26th to 30th December, 2013
Jonny Bairstow brought in for Prior and Panesar for the departing Swann were the only two changes made. Surprised as many were by the former, it was as drastic as Flower suggested in the post Perth press conference. England were put in to bat for the first time despite losing the toss and got themselves in a great position with KP and Bresnan batting at 222/6 at the end of Day 1 with the former looking his old self after a half century and the Yorkshireman looking defiant. It all collapsed in the first session of Day 2 but England actually won an entire day when they ended Day 2 with Australia 91 runs behind and England needing 1 wicket to wrap up the innings and possibly take a commanding position in a Test for the very first time. Unfortunately, everything went pear-shaped when the magician that was Haddin and no.11 Nathan Lyon forged a 40 run partnership that reduced the deficit to 51. England then got off to a good start with Cook getting a quick half century (by his standards) and Carberry looking unlike himself but solid. Then came the first batting collapse when Cook, Carberry, Root and Bell were all dismissed with minutes of each other, the last two wickets totally uncharacteristic of the players. It was again upto KP and his new wicketkeeper Bairstow to stave off Johnson with his fiery hand which led to some tension on the field with gusty winds blowing all over the MCG, that also saw world record attendance of over 91,000 on the first day. While KP was dealing with Mitch, Bairstow had to bear the brunt of it as he swung at a ball that edged to Haddin. Then began the second collapse of the day with the tail again going cheaply, 3 ducks all to a surprising Lyon who got his first 5 wicket haul in Test cricket and to 100 Test wickets. This meant that Australia had a target of 231 which they chased as if they were playing garden cricket with Rogers scoring a century and Watson scoring the winning runs, all for the loss of 2 wickets, creating another record of the lowest number of wickets lost in an Ashes chase. This meant that Australia had now taken a 4-0 lead and with England’s help were well on their way to a whitewash, not unlike the 2006-07 series that still haunts former all-rounder Andrew Flintoff and captain at that time Vaughan.
Disappointing as it was to see Australia win, the remarkable turnaround that they have seen under Lehmann is something to be applauded. Yes, most of their centuries have come in the second innings when they had a cushy lead to fall back on. Yes most of Mitchell Johnson’s 35 wickets in the series (before the 5th Test) have been of the tail and he has only dismissed top order batsmen 5 times in 8 innings. But the sheer confidence and fluency with which the entire team played is something that was seen by another team that won the Ashes the last time it was played in Australia in 2010-11. All that remains now for Cook and Flower is to make sure that the horrific whitewash of 2006-07 isn’t repeated.