Ashes 2013: Handsome victory draws muted celebration
Fears for England's future as mainstays of the team head towards the latter stages of their careers with replacements not yet evident
There is no doubt that England would have settled for this. Had Alastair Cook, their captain, been offered three victories against Australia without reply seven weeks ago he might have risked a charge of multiple cannibalism in his voracity to bite hands off.
His team have claimed the key moments. They won the first pulsating Test which they dominated for long periods, they crushed their opponents in the second and in the fourth they found the resolve and the resilience when it mattered which all successful teams need.
The upshot has been an overwhelming triumph of the sort which resided for almost two decades in the realms of fantasy. As did, for far longer, the idea of an Ashes series being secured in Durham, a glorious day which had never happened before and will probably never be repeated.
Three-nil against Australia, 3-0 – whether written in words or numbers it looks and sounds beautiful to an Englishman.
Yet the telephone lines of companies which hire open-topped buses have remained resolutely unblocked. There is none of the joy throughout the land which existed in 2005, when it was partnered by unbridled relief, or 2009, none of the exultation which gripped like a vice Down Under in 2010-11.
Instead there is polite applause for a job done, as it was expected to be done, generous acclaim for the enormous contribution of Ian Bell for three hundreds in a low- scoring series, respect for Graeme Swann, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, senior bowlers who each played a prominent role in one of the three victories.
Perhaps the nation has become too accustomed to holding the Ashes. Not blasé exactly, never that about defeating Australia, but a response conditioned by a belief that England are not all that good and Australia, while not all that bad, are nowhere near as brilliant as their legendary recent forebears.
It rained all day at The Kia Oval yesterday and the gloom it generated perversely did not seem out of place. England, who have been tedious for most of the three days of play, remain at 247 for 4, still 245 runs behind Australia. They will resume their torpid batting exhibition today. A draw is the only possible outcome.
The series has had inspirational moments and magnetic passages of play which only Test cricket can provide. But after the edge-of-seat stuff which pervaded the First Test in Trent Bridge it has been alluring only in patches.
Maybe we have become spoiled. England, perhaps because of the pitches in which they were presumably instrumental in ensuring were prepared, have often played dull and attritional cricket. During their epic triumph eight years ago the captain then, Michael Vaughan, often said that he wanted his men to express themselves, and he ensured that they put this into practice.
This team, led pragmatically and intelligently by Cook, have not expressed themselves. Suddenly, despite the surprise new caps at The Oval for the final match, they seem an old team, almost too wise and too experienced for their own good.
There is fear about what lies ahead in Australia this winter, when the Ashes, won three times in a row, must be defended. The overwhelming favouritism which perhaps deserves to accompany England after that sequence no longer exists. If they embark with a strategy similar to what has worked at home in the past weeks they will lose. Looking at what lies ahead and at the players coming up, they will not find it easy to win again.
Outstanding players who have contributed much over a period of years are entitled to have lean periods. But many of the squad – such as Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Anderson, Swann – are the other side of 30. They realise, or will be starting to realise, that they are closer to the end than the beginning.
In Pietersen's case, the sharpness of his eyes is everything given the way he plays; in Trott's, the short ball has become a torture. Anderson has started to look weary at times, the hard labour of Tests in successive weeks taking its grim toll. The selection process has been called into question after the decision to cap Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan in this Test match. Woakes is a skilful cricketer who may be of Test class if his batting is up to the No 6 position and if he can bowl as a fourth seamer. Kerrigan has it all to do after freezing on day one.
But these were still odd choices. England frequently maintain that they pick an XI to win a match. It is impossible to imagine that either or both would have played had the series been on the knife edge. Maybe there was no better time to blood newcomers, but it would contradict their philosophy.
Three-nil, 3-0 in the Ashes against Australia and yet there is so much to ponder, so many more questions than answers.
The high and low points of an enigmatic series
* Mitchell Starc has been dropped twice and played three times in this series. In his entire career of 12 Tests he has been picked nine times, dropped eight times and never appeared in consecutive Tests.
* The most fervent sledger of the series, based on observation from beyond the boundary, has been Jimmy Anderson. He has never disappointed in his zeal to offer a discouraging profanity.
* Ian Bell has been by far and away the best batsman of the series, a walking advertisement for the virtues of the traditional method. He has played later than a jazz club clarinetist.
*Darren Lehmann was appointed 16 days before the Ashes to save the series. Australia have lost heavily, failing to win a match for the first time since 1977 and he has just been fined by the ICC for breaching their code of conduct. Yet his stock has risen.
* Assuming Australia fail to win this match, they will have gone nine Tests without victory, their worst run since Kim Hughes's team went nine in 1984. Hughes resigned. Michael Clarke says he is merely warming to the task.
* The review system had a dreadful series. Every other decision seemed to be wrong. But the much-criticised umpire Tony Hill had 18 calls reviewed, 14 of which were upheld.
* Alastair Cook – 766 runs at 127.67 in the last Ashes series – has 240 runs at 26.50 so far in this, beating only Douglas Jardine (199 at 22.11), Len Hutton (220 at 24.44) and Mike Brearley (184 at 16.73) as winning captains.
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