Let’s start with what this isn’t. Australia retaining the Ashes doesn’t make them a world-beating team. It doesn’t signify going to the top of the world as it did when Mark Taylor’s charges won in the Caribbean in 1995, nor does it give a hint that a period of world domination isn’t far away, per the 1989 triumph in this country. It shouldn’t be observed as some sort of redemption for the embarrassing display in South Africa last year with cricket’s natural order being restored: the Big Dogs barking away from the top. But historically and symbolically, it is an important moment. A triumph of serious planning and a launching pad for a far brighter future.
That they had to get over the line on a tough fifth-day scrap was all-too reminiscent of Cardiff a decade ago when England held on for a draw they never deserved. Having stitched together pretty much the perfect performance, Ricky Ponting’s side badly lost their way. The captain would later call it the perfect Test – aside from one wicket. An experience like that can break a group, as it did in 2009. Leeds ran the risk of doing just the same after Ben Stokes’ miracle a fortnight ago and all that followed. As Paine said himself after completing his mission, it was “a loss that could break a lot of teams.”
But it didn’t. Here, when it came to the crunch once more, the visitors held their nerve. Specifically, Tim Paine. He was right to cop it after Headingley for the decisions he made in that fateful final hour. It wasn’t therefore fair to conclude he should be sacked, dropped and have his passport confiscated. But this is the Australian cricket team we are talking about – the discourse around them is rarely founded on rationality, and Leeds stung. It required calm leadership to get through it and that’s what he offered.
Paine has been described as a wartime leader and that feels about right. That nobody has the faintest idea who will replace him if his career does end sooner rather than later says quite a lot in that respect. Yes, it could be Steve Smith but no, it absolutely shouldn’t be. Hopefully, the board are sensible enough not to ask him to do the job to begin with. Let the guy bat forever, free of all the nonsense that goes with being the Australian Cricket Captain. It will help if the incumbent – an Ashes-winning skipper, no less – now sticks around for a while.
Take the way they responded on this fifth day when various England players started to put a shift in, too far away from the victory target to ever consider attacking. A generation ago, part of the cat-and-mouse of fifth-day fare was leaving a score that could be chased in order to entice aggressive enough batting to take the wickets. Paine took that off the table on Saturday by setting 383, which increased the degree of difficulty on his bowlers. They had to be patient when the shouts didn’t go their way, nor the edges to hand. They couldn’t snatch at it.
It’s intriguing to cast back to last summer, when Australia were crying out for some respite at the end of their annus horribilis, whether they could have maintained this type of calmer disposition. As a number of players, Paine included, explained after the sandpaper affair, the desperation to win too often morphed into full-frontal verbal altercations that bowlers such as Pat Cummins found exhausting. There was always a bit of a sense that they overdid it because being terrible to people didn’t come as naturally as it might have others.
Cummins just wants to bowl, not gob off, and why wouldn’t he when his wickets now come at 21 apiece and a strike rate of 45? After making the major incision on Saturday evening with two scalps in two balls, naturally, it was the top-ranked bowler in the world who went through Jason Roy just when it looked like he and Joe Denly’s union was going to be crazy-making. The box office contest with Stokes was over before it started, Cummins sorting him out to give him the first four wickets. He wouldn’t take any more but his influence was always felt.
A challenge for Ponting in 2009 when the going got toughest was that he didn’t have enough trust in his attack, famously bowling a part-timer ahead of his two openers at the death. The difference today was that Paine did back an out-of-sorts Nathan Lyon to get it right, and after getting into his groove, he did by removing Denly in classic fifth-day fashion with extra bite and bounce. That also applied to Mitch Starc, who was taken from the attack without knowing it before lunch – a slightly embarrassing moment – but was there to do his bit after the interval when blowing Jonny Bairstow’s front pad off.
It was a minor miracle Cummins didn’t bag his fifth before tea, denied much as he was on the second day by how much he was getting the ball to move around at high pace. With every dot ball something to be celebrated, the final session left a slab of work to do. Sure enough, then, it was time for Josh Hazlewood, the only bowler yet to get in the book, to bowl the ball of the day to skittle Jos Buttler. Fast forward an hour, a new ball and anxiety-inducing go-slow efforts from England with the light dimming, it was him again to finish it off.
Another dollop of credit to Paine for his use of Marnus Labuschagne across several short spells. Looking less and less a part-timer, his leg spinners (top spinners, really) were a handful and sufficient to remove the unflappable cult hero Jack Leach, the ninth to fall. Smith said on Saturday night that to finish this off a lot of players needed to contribute rather than relying on a tearaway spell from Cummins, and that’s precisely how the urn was eventually secured.
With each passing week, the mess that Australian cricket got itself into at Cape Town, and the administratively chaotic months that followed, are further in the rear-view mirror. There is also a risk of understating the level of the achievement here on the basis that this England team are way short of potent (with the bat at least) themselves, but the fact that it has taken 18 years to do this again is reason enough to be cheerful. To borrow from an old political slogan, there is more to do but they now know that they are heading in the right direction.
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