I wish I could keep this particular post short. But the one activity that has been taking up my entire day for over a month and half has come to an end. Now while I’ve never watched an Ashes series from beginning to end, I have always followed the fierce and intense rivalry of the 1st two Test playing nations right from the time I started watching cricket. From the likes of Hussain, Atherton, Gough, Flintoff, Strauss, Vaughan, Trescothick to the characters of Hussey, Gilchrist, Ponting, Warne, Lee, Hughes – the Ashes series, every 2 years, has always been a pinnacle in the calendar year. And this year seemed no different, especially since English and Australian fans were getting back-to-back doses of Ashes cricket, first in the English summer and then 3 months later in the Aussie summer. But what changed it all started 2 years ago when one by one, the Aussie Test side began to show cracks as their stalwarts began retiring. Punter had his last Test last year while Hussey, Lee and Gilly all retired a couple years ago. This is compared to a fresh English side that toured India last summer and came away with a historic 3-2 win after 28 years. Contrasts in the results for both these sides was obviously going to be compared. While England, assisted by their spinner Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, gave the Indian side a run for their money as they came up from 2-0 behind to win the next 3 Tests highly convincingly, the Aussies began their losing streak by being white-washed completely by the same team that had lost to England. So logic said that the Aussies would get beaten by England as well. While after India, England played New Zealand away and at home with drawing both Test and ODI series, their Champions Trophy gut-wrenching final loss at home to a team that they had defeated almost a year back might have looked like they were going to suffer. Luckily for them, the Aussies were having a worse campaign with one of their power hitters being banned for punching a rather naive and young English lad (see Joe Root) and sent off to the corner of the world (South Africa) to polish his skills, which he did, not to mention the abysmal performance under stand-in skipper, George Bailey, who prayed fervently that Michael Clarke would sort his back out before the Ashes. To add salt to the wound, Cricket Australia fired Mickey Arthur, the Aussie coach, 2 weeks before the Ashes began and brought in former batsman Darren ‘Boof’ Lehmann to inject some Aussie fear and girth into the team.
Looking at the background, many would say that England were looking at a historic 5-0 win. In more ways than not, England looked like a stronger and more cohesive squad. While they didn’t win the Champions Trophy, their bowling attack looked to be in form led by Jimmy Anderson and their batting lineup was looking to usher in a new era of openers with former captain Andrew Strauss retiring from all forms of cricket before the India tour and handing Test captaincy to Alastair Cook. They had survived the threats of both Indian pitches and NZ wiles and were ready to look forward to a third consecutive Ashes win. And that is what exactly happened. The Australia that I knew and had seen demolishing other countries in the 90s and early 2000s, this squad was barely a whisper of it. While individual talents stood out like skipper Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Brad Haddin; and there were newbies waiting to earn that special ‘baggy green’ like James Faulkner; while there were those out to prove their place in an Ashes side like Chris Rogers, Jackson Bird, Ed Cowan, Phil Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Nathan Lyon; the team cohesiveness was glaringly absent as compared to the English squad. The Lions were unbeaten in 8 tests starting from India and ending at home, each player knew their teammates well, the bowling attack worked in tandem and with exception of the opening pair of Cook and Root, everyone else knew what was expected of them. With this in mind, I didn’t think that the men from Down Under had the slightest chance. But the scoreline 3-0 doesn’t do justice to them.
1st Test – Trent Bridge
Ian Bell batting at no. 4 started what would turn out to be possibly his best Ashes series scoring his 19th 100 and saving England. A surprise call-up for 19 year old spinner Ashton Agar brought a record individual debut score of 98 at no. 11 and a record 10th wicket partnership with Phil Hughes(86*) to save Australia from following on. While England batted again, James Anderson snatched the Test away from Pattinson and Haddin who were 14 runs short as Anderson bowled a 13 over spell on Day 5 to emphatically hand England win no. 1
2nd Test – Lord’s
Seeing how close they came to winning at Trent Bridge, the Aussies went into meltdown at the home of cricket and were bundled out for 128 in their 1st innings after having avoided follow-on with England setting an imposing target courtesy a Bell century and were treated to a Joe Root century that had Cook waiting for Root’s double to come or his wicket to fall (the latter spurring a declaration) England thus raced to a resounding win to take win no. 2. Meanwhile in the Aussie camp, they were scratching their heads when they read these stats – P6 W0 L6
3rd Test – Old Trafford
Right across the home of the Manchester United Football Club stadium, the Theatre of Dreams, the Aussie side were hoping some vibrations from the Premier League champions would inspire their insipid batting following a surprisingly testing bowling attack. They were rewarded when they won the toss, set England an imposing target with Pup (Clarke) scoring a brilliant 187 and were finally looking to take charge when Kevin Pietersen came to town and scored his 1st 100 after with Bell falling after a hard earned 60 and captain Cook coming to town with a fighting partnership with KP. But bad light and the Manchester rain ruined Pup’s chances of grabbing his 1st win in 7 games and the game was drawn. England still 2-0
4th Test – Durham
A special ground for the people of Chester-le-Street held a special moment for the English fans. Having retained the Ashes in a rather anti-climatic moment, England were to win the Ashes spectacularly here. Debutant Chris Rogers scored his maiden 100 at 35 years of age while Bell continued his great form by scoring a century. Australia went into their 2nd innings buoyant that Rogers could continue his 1st innings form. At 107 for none at lunch on Day 4, Rogers and Warner, making Australia’s first 100 opening partnership, were looking to cruise their side to a comfortable win with a day to spare. And England’s Cook looked to salvage a draw and was highly defensive. But something was put in their lunch and come tea, Australia were 167/2, Watson and Warner in. It looked decided and then Bresnan got Warner out. After that, Stuart Broad, with his brilliant 1st innings 5 wicket haul, looked like a bullet train charging and flicking each batsman out of their comfort zone as he ravaged with glee through the Aussie middle order. From 167/2 to 187/7 came the final drinks break and a determined Alastair Cook opting for the extra half hour to try and take 3 wickets. Bresnan with a valuable contribution and Broad with his sheer pace and accurate length made full use of their captain’s faith and finally Broad delivered the final stroke to win England the Ashes.
5th Test – the Oval
A dead rubber with two outlooks – Australia looking to salvage this disastrous series, having taken the lead 4 times, scoring more than 400 in all the occasions while England simply 3-0 up, winning the Ashes and looking to make history by being the only English side to win the Ashes 4-0 at home. Australia won the toss and were treated to fabulous but rather pointless centuries by Watson and a maiden for Smith, Watto’s coming after nearly 3 years and only his 3rd in his Test career. Ian Bell looking to make history by being the only man to score 4 Ashes centuries but unfortunately crumbling to a half century and 45 in both innings. Debutant allrounder Chris Woakes performing rather sedately while spinner Simon Kerrigan possibly had one of the worst Test debuts ever. James Faulkner, the Aussie debutant also performed slightly below par. Bell and Woakes played traditional Test cricket on Day 3, scoring from tea at a rate of 2/over much to the disgust of some English fans. Day 4 was completely washed out and Day 5 promised to be do all or die all for both teams. While England avoided the follow-on with contributions from Woakes, Bell, Prior and Swann, Australia reshuffled their batting order for the 10th time in the series and played in T20 mode as Broad ripped again before Clarke declared with 44 overs to play and a target of 227. England started off brilliantly as Trott and Cook managed the 1st of the 3 50 partnerships in that innings. KP then came on at his most beloved ground to score the fastest Ashes half century before falling. Bell then came on with Woakes to possibly power England into history before Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharamsena decided that they didn’t want England to win anymore and called off the players for bad light.
And thus in this fashion, the Ashes were won!