Australia did what they came here to do. And by the time England’s resistance finally ran out at 2.15pm on a Monday afternoon, it felt as routine and perfunctory as signing a cheque: victory in the fifth Test sealed by an innings and 123 runs, the series won 4-0, the sport’s oldest rivalry comprehensively settled for the time being.
As Steve Smith’s side milked the applause from a largely empty SCG, they had every reason to feel satisfied with their efforts. They have done an outstanding and at times a ruthless job on England, sending them back to the mother country with nothing but bruises. We have been privileged to watch one of their greatest batsmen of all time at the peak of his powers. And their four-man attack, disciplined and aggressive, are not disgraced by comparison with their 2006/07 and 2013/14 counterparts. Between them Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon took every single England wicket to fall this series.
It was Hazlewood who struck the final blow, dismissing James Anderson to bring up the curtain on Australia’s celebrations. Anderson wanted to review the decision, but was told England had none left. Back in the dressing room, captain Joe Root did not emerge, having been forced to abort his innings with a viral bug. There were reports that he was asleep. You couldn’t blame him, really.
And so England’s seven-week campaign to retain the Ashes ended in ignominy, confusion and disarray. It was a wholly predictable denouement, one you suspect was sealed some time before England arrived for the final day’s play without their captain. Root was laid low with gastroenteritis overnight, was taken to hospital with various uncontrollable bodily extrusions, and finally arrived at the SCG shortly after the start of play still wearing his hospital wristband.
He strode out gingerly at the fall of the fifth wicket, Moeen Ali LBW to Lyon in wholly predictable fashion, missing a straight one as he played down the wrong line. Looking in considerable discomfort, he ran weakly between the wickets, struggled to get any power behind his strokes. But he was able to guide the ball down through gully to reach his fifth half-century of the series, and as the ground generously acclaimed his courage, England all too briefly threatened a stout and heartwarming rearguard in the vein of Eddie Paynter at Brisbane in 1932/33.
But Root failed to return after lunch, stricken by a relapse of his illness, and the bottom fell out of England’s innings just as quickly. Jonny Bairstow was LBW to Cummins in wholly predictable fashion, missing a straight one as he tried to turn the ball to leg. Stuart Broad was caught behind in wholly predictable fashion, fending a short ball straight up in the air. Mason Crane was caught behind in wholly predictable fashion, gloving a vicious Cummins bouncer.
And so out walked Anderson, the ceremonial fall guy, the No 11 playing what in all likelihood would be his last international game in Australia. He was peppered by Cummins, almost bowled by one that kept low. He was hit by Starc, ending the series by cranking it up towards 90mph. He watched as Tom Curran hewed a couple of consolation boundaries. And then he was out, done up good and proper by a short one outside off-stump. He had given it everything, only to find himself hopelessly outclassed.
Which, as it turned out, was a perfect metaphor for England’s tour. They could, if they want to, cling to a few grains of comfort. The superb Dawid Malan has nailed down a spot in the middle order; Craig Overton and Mason Crane have shown promise. They have taken all five Tests into a fifth day. They are yet to sack anybody for looking out of the window and whistling. Things are not quite as barrel-scrapingly bad as they were four years ago.
But a team as ambitious, lavishly-funded and – yes – talented as this England side should not be content with setting the bar that low. They may have taken all five games into a final day, but they have lost all five of those days. With the exception of a handful of baking days, the weather has been temperate, mild, almost English. They cannot blame conditions. They cannot blame the coin; Root won four tosses out of five. They could blame Ben Stokes, although you very much doubt he would have been able to get Smith out either.
No, England can blame nobody but themselves here. The lack of spin bowlers, the lack of genuine pace, the lack of disciplined batsmen, the lack of resolve: we have been discussing all this ad nauseam over the last few weeks. There can be no guarantees in 2019, either: while England are devoting their energies to a home World Cup, Australia’s No 1 priority will be winning on English soil for the first time in 18 years.
There will be enquiries and post-mortems and hand-wringing and soul-searching. Dossiers will be compiled, fingers will be pointed, axes will be swung. All this is natural and good. Losing the Ashes should still hurt, even in this benighted post-free-to-air era, when cricket is no longer part of the national conversation. But perhaps all that can wait for now. And ultimately, when it came down to it, Australia did their talking on the pitch.
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