Ashes 2015: Defeat in the fifth test fails to tarnish Ashes homecoming

England's celebrations may be muted after Australia get off their knees to turn the tables, but there's no denying Cook's side are on the up

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The Independent Online

Sometime on Sunday, England will lose against Australia.

It is no more than they deserve on the run of play. A few minutes later they will receive the most prized trophy in their sport – or at least a replica of it – the Ashes urn.

The celebrations may be muted because of what is likely to be a heavy defeat, by an innings, but they will not be tarnished. England have played disappointingly in this fifth Investec Test, but in the series as a whole they have surprised themselves and everybody else.

Undoubtedly, they are a work in progress and never have the Ashes winners lost two matches by such resounding margins – 405 runs at Lord’s and whatever it transpires to be here on Sunday. But England are a team on the up.

It is not stretching the point too much to say that, along with the Ashes, they have regained the nation’s hearts. The man who has been chiefly responsible for engineering this played almost a lone hand on Saturday in prolonging England’s second innings and ensuring that the match went into a fourth day.

Alastair Cook was studiously stoic in compiling 85 from 235 balls.  He was dismissed as the third day drew to its close. Having dealt with some extremely probing bowling he turned a ball from the occasional leg spinner Steve Smith (these days very occasional) into the hands of short leg. Cook’s wait for a hundred in a home Ashes series must last another four years.

England finished on 203 for 6, still 129 runs adrift. Jos Buttler, who had put on 59 with Cook for the sixth wicket – England’s highest partnership of the innings – was unbeaten on 33. The batting sadly lacked fortitude once more. Too many batsmen still think leaves are something Network Rail have to cope with in the autumn.

It was always likely to be difficult for England. They are a young side who had already accomplished their mission. Against all expectations, the Ashes were regained, and regained before the series reached its final match. Many of the players must have been as dumbfounded as they were excited.

After a week of justified plaudits, down they came to the Oval, scene of so many of the greatest moments in English cricket  – 1926, 1953, 2005, 2009, years the Ashes were won, in the first three instances after unconscionably long periods when it seemed they might never be coming home again. At stake now was something else, the chance to win four matches in a home series against Australia for the first time.

The mood had shifted. There was some talk about what they might be capable of in the years ahead, understandable perhaps given what had happened, but dangerously tempting providence. Some muddled thinking ensued about how to go about the immediate matter in hand.

Australia looked to be on their knees. Word from their training sessions was that they were a team without focus, led by a captain on his way out and with one foot on the aeroplane steps. Their batting, dismantled in two-successive matches, was in disarray. They did not know which players to select.

It must have seemed almost natural for Cook to win the toss and bat under overcast skies on Thursday morning. But he did so because the series was already won and he indicated that he would not have done so had it still been alive. True, he had a happy experience from last year when he asked India to bat here and England went on to win by an innings.

Still, this was only the 13th time in 98 Tests at the Oval that the captain winning the toss had opted to  bowl. There are reasons for this  and Australia provided 481 of  them, making a draw the height of England’s aspirations.

The will, the gusto seemed to have gone out of them throughout Friday and for much of Saturday. The first innings was replete with shoddy workmanship, playing poor shots when it would have been easier to play no shots.

They were fractionally better on Saturday, but only because Cook was doing what he does best, digging in. Twice before in his time as an England batsman the team have been asked to follow and on both occasions, in Galle in 2007 and in Ahmedabad in 2012 he had made defiant hundreds.

The partnerships lasted, respectively, in round figures, for 12, 13, 11, 14 overs and four balls. Australia bowled admirably, keeping a tight line and knowing the weaknesses of their opponents. Adam Lyth’s Test career might have ended when he edged yet again to slip off a ball from Peter Siddle (pictured), Ian Bell’s is in question after an uncomfortable stay of 40 balls, many of which might have dismissed him.

The batting was perplexing. It suggested that England have ended the summer of Test match cricket in a confused state. To general acclaim a couple of months back they reinvented themselves as a Test side. In a way they threw off the shackles and became intent on expressing themselves, on playing bright, attacking cricket. They knew because they said so that this might lead to them coming unstuck occasionally.

Equally, there is a point where it is necessary to forsake the default position for the sake of the result. It is Test match cricket after all. It remains acceptable to take matches into the fifth day, which has not been done at all in this series. Unless rain falls on Sunday, that will not be happening here.

But, remember, the Ashes have come home.