The Ashes are gone, but not before the first three matches of the series reinforced most of the expectations that have been expressed over the past few months.
Australia’s strength is still in their pace bowling, while Michael Clarke remains the country’s only batsman of elite class. Until the selectors can identify three or four batsmen to support Clarke in his endeavours, and it is not to say that they are not already in the team, the team’s win-loss ratio will remain in the red.
Shane Watson has flattered for years without escaping the suspicion that the rigours of Test cricket are too great a burden for his emotional and physical powers. David Warner is a wayward talent; Steve Smith a maturing one. Chris Rogers has an old head on old shoulders, but the value of 20,000 first-class runs and a simple balanced technique gives him the chance to win a two- or three-year Test career. Usman Khawaja looks the goods but has not yet confirmed that he has the goods.
They all make occasional contributions but none of them can match Clarke’s ability, as he did in the first innings at Old Trafford, to swing the match away from the opposition.
Yet Clarke’s splendid batting and the efforts of the whole-hearted Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle were enough to expose the narrow gap between the teams. England have repeatedly fallen prey to Australia’s new-ball bowlers.
Scores of 102 for 3 and 121 for 3 at Trent Bridge, 26 for 3 and 30 for 3 at Lord’s and 64 for 3 and 27 for 3 at Old Trafford speak volumes for the top-order parallels between the teams. Harris is a muscular steamroller whose pistons are more durable than his joints. When he gets it right, as he did in the opening exchanges yesterday, he can threaten the barricades of the most obdurate batsmen.
Siddle is no thoroughbred but he does not need to be when the scent of battle is in his nostrils. Indefatigable and possessing a more subtle game than in previous seasons, he has responded to regular calls for his head with invariable displays of heart. Sixteen wickets have come in the first three Tests, many of them when Australia most needed a breakthrough.
Spin bowling remains one of Australia’s most significant problems, however, and it is no surprise that the major point of difference between the teams has been Graeme Swann.
Australia have used two front-line twirlers for the negligible return of three wickets from 122 overs. Swann has 19 wickets from 173 overs and the opportunity to return the most successful series by any England off-spinner before or since Jim Laker.
Ashton Agar has a golden future. The teenager could be a 15-year Test cricketer who ends up batting at No 6 and claiming scores of wickets. Yet he was picked for the first Test on little more than promise and character. The experiment only lasted two Tests but the sight of Nathan Lyon bowling around the wicket to the right-handers’ leg-stump in a bid to force a catch to leg slip yesterday revealed how dry Australia’s well of spin imagination has become.
Lyon’s second delivery was over the wicket and exploded from the footmarks into Joe Root’s midriff, yet the bowler soon abandoned that attacking line for the lottery option of attempting to strangle a leg-side catch.
England deserve to retain the Ashes. They played the better cricket at the most critical moments, yet there is little between the teams. Certainly not enough to support a whitewash in either series, home or away, over the next six months.
John Townsend is Cricket Writer at ‘The West Australian’