Ashes 2015: England revel in unexpected return from wilderness

Cook’s team did not just beat Australia to win the Ashes, they dismantled them

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The Independent Online

After a night and a day of contemplation, England’s achievement in recapturing the Ashes appears no less remarkable. In 40 days and 40 nights it will still retain an element of the miraculous.

It is not simply that the team, led with composure, freedom and obstinacy by Alastair Cook, have defeated Australia with one match remaining in the series, it is that they have dismantled their opponents. In successive matches, Australia have been ruthlessly exposed, as they were again on Saturday morning when a mere 39 minutes were required to complete a victory by an innings and 78 runs to secure the series.

Durham’s cheerful fast bowler Mark Wood administered the final blow in the fourth Test, helped in the 62 balls it took by his equally exuberant county colleague Ben Stokes, who finished with 6 for 35. Stuart Broad’s staggering 8 for 15 on the first morning made him man of the match. Jubilation of the kind which greeted the result had not been felt since the epic triumph of 2005. It was eminently deserved.

The surrender told a story  of tourists ill equipped to face English bowlers at the top of their game in English conditions, with the ball moving through the air and off the seam. It is one thing, of course, to supply the conditions, another to use them properly. Throughout their victories, starting with the crucial 169-run win at Cardiff, England’s seam attack has been exemplary. Only at Lord’s on a flat pitch was it less than incisive.

 

It could be said that it was the bowlers (and fielders) who won it and they made the taking of 20 wickets, sometimes fiendishly difficult in these days of bland pitches and big bats, seem straightforward. At Edgbaston in the third Investec Test, Australia faced only 695 balls, at Trent Bridge it was down to 547. To complement it England have made just enough runs to make the advantage count.

They have also persuaded the captain of Australia, Michael Clarke, to retire after the final Test at The Oval next week. Clarke has been fighting demons for a little while but his forlorn loss of form this English summer has been agonising to watch. He has had a formidable career but this really has been a tour too far and it must have affected not only his leadership but the men under him.

Winning a home Ashes series for a fourth consecutive time should not be underestimated, considering that England lost the four before that (as well as six of the last seven away). This might emphasise how difficult it appears to have become to win Test series away from home.

Since the beginning of 2010, of the series not played in either Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, only 17 out of 73 have been won by the visitors. England, for instance, have won two of 12, Australia two from eight, South Africa one from nine. But that clinical statistic does not take account of what overwhelming favourites Australia were to win here.

There were many reasons. They had won the Ashes 5-0 in Australia 18 months ago. They had a fearsome bowling attack. In Steve Smith, they had a batsman who could not stop scoring runs. On their tour of West Indies in June, they had disdainfully crushed their opponents where England a few weeks earlier had been diffident and drawn only 1-1. England, having sacked a director of cricket and a coach, looked in disarray.

In these circumstances optimism was difficult to exhibit. Considering the punditry around at the time it seems almost prescient of this newspaper to have reported along the following lines: “If they can reach The Oval with the series still at stake the Ashes may well be coming home.”

Even those words were written more in hope than expectation and certainly no one could have expected England to be ahead 3-1 with one to play and to have won so dismissively. The change in management played its part.

Andrew Strauss made an immediate difference as the new director in deciding that the coach Peter Moores had to go. In doing this, Strauss was probably right, though it was quite correct and fair that Cook should mention Moores’ contribution in his after-match comments in Nottingham. Trevor Bayliss, the new coach, promoted a more relaxed (though not casual) approach, which had first been apparent under the assistant Paul Farbrace, who had taken temporary charge after Moores’ departure.

Then there was Cook himself. He now stands as only the third captain, after W G Grace and Mike Brearley, to win two home Ashes series. Yet barely more than a year ago he was fighting for his job, one that most of his predecessors now in the punditry game said he should lose.

Cook stood his ground. When his voice choked with the emotion of it all in the immediate aftermath of the jubilant triumph on Saturday it was impossible not to recall the last time that happened, though in rather different circumstances. Towards the end of the last ill-fated tour of Australia, when Cook could hardly buy a run and his team had long since failed to recognise what a win looked like, he came close to admitting that the game was up for him. In  the bowels of the Sydney Cricket Ground after his side’s ninth successive defeat his voice was cracking.

“English cricket needs a little bit of a change,” he said. “The last three months we haven’t played the cricket we are capable of and we have to look at the reasons why.”

It was as near as he came to the precipice. But the real transformation did not arrive until this summer. There has been a combination of factors: Strauss, Farbrace, a different team mixing exuberant youth with enthused experience, and the advent of New Zealand, this year’s first tourists to England who seemed to embrace the sheer joy of playing cricket.

Cook conceded on Saturday that he had not expected this team to win the Ashes. He thought they were not match-hardened enough. But that view was contradicted by Joe Root, his vice-captain, the series’ leading runscorer and now the No 1-ranked batsman in the world. “I definitely knew at the start of the series we were capable of achieving what we have,” said Root. “To do it how we have is just credit to the whole squad of players.”

Not surprisingly, it was the memory and anguish of the  5-0 reversal in Australia which helped to drive on Root and the others who were there. Nine of England’s 13 players in this series were on that tour. “That was one of the things that drove us forward,” said Root. “Knowing what we went through there, all that hurt and pain, all the stuff we’ve had to overcome since then.”

In Root and Stokes, England may have two cricketers for the ages. There are still selection conundrums – Moeen Ali, elegant batsman, fallible spinner, and Adam Lyth, yet to adjust to the rarefied demands. But they can wait a while. It was so hugely unexpected. But the Ashes are back.

* James Anderson, who was injured for Trent Bridge, has been named in the England squad for the final Test.

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