Ashes 2015 review: Memories of a golden summer of cricket

An English season that began in crisis has ended with the Ashes retaken and a real sense of optimism about a young, vibrant England team

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Lord’s was under a state of siege. The game seemed to be in meltdown. England had clumsily sacked the coach and controversially ended the international career, again, of their most illustrious player.

A few days earlier the team had returned from a Test tour of the Caribbean with their tail between their legs. The 1-1 draw that they contrived against a weak West Indies followed a World Cup in which they plumbed new depths of mediocrity.

To suggest that cricket was a laughing stock probably underestimated the seriousness of the matter. Some people might have been splitting their sides, all right, but too many others had ceased to care.

This was the backdrop to that second Tuesday in May. It was officially the unveiling of the new director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, by the newish chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Tom Harrison. Unofficially, it was the opening of the inquest into the slow, lingering death of the team and possibly the game. Cameras, microphones, tape recorders, notebooks were assembled in force and it was possible to tell how significant it all was by the number of them belonging to non-cricket media.

The setting, in the pavilion at the ground which still provides cricket with its heartbeat, made it the sadder. Or simply embellished the farcical nature of it. Anyone suggesting this was the precursor to a golden summer in which bridges were not so much burned as put through an incinerator, then rebuilt to Isambard Kingdom Brunel levels, would have been seen as a poverty denier.

Both Harrison and Strauss were impressive that day. Preposterously young men by the normal standards of cricket administration, they spoke with conviction and passion.

Harrison apologised for the woeful fashion in which the dismissal of Peter Moores, an estimable coach and a dignified man who happened to be in the wrong job, had been handled. Strauss explained authoritatively why there was no place for Kevin Pietersen in the England team. Their performances disguised the shambles rather than eradicated it.

Yet less than a fortnight later a spellbinding Test against New Zealand – it had to be at Lord’s naturally – provided the key to a spiritual revolution. By the end of the summer not only had the Ashes been regained and the limited overs team reborn as a fully paid up member of the 21st century but the nation had begun to fall back in love with cricket.

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Stuart Broad celebrates

It enabled Paul Farbrace, the ebullient assistant coach who was instrumental in engineering the transformation in those far off spring days, to say last week: “If at the start of this summer somebody would have said that we would draw the New Zealand Tests, beat New Zealand in the one-dayers, win the Ashes and be going into the last game locked at 2-2 heading to Old Trafford we would have snapped their hand off. And probably walked away saying ‘whatever they’re drinking, I’ll have a pint of that.’”

In the past few months, starting with that opening Test, it is as if the players have been set free. They have trusted their instincts partly through circumstance, partly encouragement. The regime change helped.

When Trevor Bayliss, the newly appointed Australian coach, came along just in time for the start of the Ashes, almost his first words in referring to his operating method were: “Very laid back. I keep things simple. At the top level it’s about creating a good environment.

“Yes, at times you have to be working on technique but at the top level it’s more about environment. If you’ve got a good environment, an honest, hard-working environment where they enjoy what they’re doing, it allows the players to go out with less pressure and show the skills they’ve got. Rather than the opposite where they can feel under pressure from off the field as well.”

It is worth noting that the contribution of Moores should not be and was not overlooked in all this. Strauss was unequivocal in his assessment that Moores was not the man to take England forward, though mortified he should become aware of his dismissal via reporters on social network sites. But on the day the Ashes were recaptured from Australian hands, the captain, Alastair Cook, who had been given Strauss’s backing on that tumultuous Tuesday at Lord’s, paid deliberate and considered tribute to Moores’ work.

The day the Ashes were recaptured: in many ways it still seems too much to grasp. What happened in 2015 will come to be ranked with those other magical occasions on English soil: 1926, 1953, 1977, 2005, 2009. But this time it was done with a match to spare in a series where the ebb and flow became a tidal wave constantly altering direction.

If this was the centrepiece it was not alone in containing valiant acts and breath-taking moments, riveting passages of play in both forms of the game. The contribution of New Zealand, the first tourists of the season, to everything that happened was undoubtedly significant. The way they played was contagious and they came along at exactly the right time for an England team that recognised it had to evolve at the speed of light, or else face derision and apathy.

New Zealand were led by Brendon McCullum, a man for the age. He recognised the simple truth that cricket had to be entertaining if it was to be worth the candle. He preached it in a quiet but persuasive manner and ensured that his team practised it ebulliently and perpetually.

After the Lord’s match McCullum, a man patently at ease with himself, said: “It doesn’t matter what you say does it? It’s what you do. I think the cricket we play is aggressive without the rubbish.” McCullum and his fellow Kiwis were perhaps the catalyst for what ensued and it was McCullum who prodded England.

“What is their style that they want to be known for as a team heading forward?” he asked. “Was their last performance how they want to play the game, or was it more of a case of stumbling on it? It’s the challenge for them to work out, a challenge we had to go through not long ago.”

On the first morning of the first Test - the latest Pietersen imbroglio still rumbling, Strauss looking for support and being given it only because of his unimpeachable reputation, Bayliss still not mentioned as a viable prospect - England were 30 for 4. By the close they were 357 for 7, the recovery launched by Joe Root and Ben Stokes.

On the fourth day, Stokes thumped 101 in 92 balls, the fastest hundred at Lord’s. It was like being in on a life-saving operation. On the fifth day it became more uplifting still. The patient got out of bed and ran.

Reflection has not dulled the significance of that last day. MCC virtually threw open their doors – advance tickets not being sold in great number for a fifth day so often not needed – and people came who had never before either visited Lord’s or watched a Test. They loved it and they cheered it to the echo as England made rapid inroads and again when Stokes was irresistible with the ball in the afternoon.

Something happened to England then and to their captain, Cook. They went on to lose the second Test to New Zealand, gloriously rampant, in Leeds but the mood was set now and it never changed again.

Cook knew he had been affected but also retained caution in discussing it. “There is a balancing act. Maybe I have been too conservative in the past,” he said. “Sometimes I haven’t got it right, sometimes I have. That’s not for me, that’s for you guys in your columns.”

He had gone for a rest for the one-day series, no longer part of this particular team. In the first match, England scored 408, their highest total in ODIs. Three hundreds for Root and, more dazzlingly on this occasion, for Jos Buttler. People were suddenly talking.

And the series continued on this wonderful way so that it was 2-2 with one to play. What an anti-climax was threatened in a rain-marred match in Durham. England were set 192 in 26 overs to overhaul their opponents’ 283. When they stumbled in the dank air to 45-5 it was all up. There was no Buttler now.

Enter Jonny Bairstow, Buttler’s replacement. Together with Sam Billings he dragged England back into it, astonishingly, thrillingly. They won with an over to spare. And the Ashes had not even begun.

Australia still came as red hot favourites. For as long as the Ashes exist one single moment will be talked about from the 2015 contest.  Cardiff: first morning, first Test, England 43-3, another lousy start. The score had not moved on when Root, on nought, flicked late at a full ball outside off. Australia’s veteran, widely admired wicketkeeper Brad Haddin spilled the chance to his right. Root went on to make a score of 134, England won the match, Haddin never played another Test. 1-0.

England lost heavily at Lord’s on a belter of a pitch. 1-1. They won at Edgbaston on a green one. Never has a Test crowd in England been more continuously enraptured by events. Two passages of play endure: the partnership of 87 between Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad which put daylight between the sides and may have been the most crucial of the summer, and the rapid bowling of Steve Finn, effecting a personal renaissance by taking 6-79. 2-1.

And then there was Trent Bridge, the apotheosis of this imperishable summer. At the end of the first over Australia were 10-2.  By lunch they were 60 all out, Broad had 8-15. Amidst a welter of incredible occurrences one stood out: the catch by Stokes diving full length and arching his back to remove Adam Voges. Broad, who should have been accustomed to the improbable by then cupped his face in mute disbelief. The improbable was one thing, the impossible another. 3-1.

Cook merely reiterated what legions of others had proclaimed. “I didn’t think we were quite ready to win the Ashes at the beginning because I thought you needed a group of players who were match-hardened.

“But the guys have surprised me. We have won really critical moments and the players have really stepped up which shouldn’t surprise me but it has. They have made big steps from guys with little experience to match-winners and hardened professionals and players for England.”

It was not quite over. England were hammered out of sight at The Oval. 3-2. There was a one-day series which itself had merit. England came from 2-0 down to 2-2 before folding. It was almost as if they could not believe all that had gone before, that all passion was spent.

There is still a crisis in English cricket. Heaven knows where the domestic game is heading with the counties resisting essential change. They may find that by embracing it there is a whole new world out there that can bring immense reward. England did. It has been miraculous.

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