A day you didn’t want to end, a Test match you didn’t want to end, a series you didn’t want to end, and – for fans of English cricket – a summer you didn’t want to end. Yet in fading sunlight on a golden autumnal evening, it ended, with a flying catch by Joe Root at mid-wicket, England claiming the victory they deserved to level the series 2-2. The Ashes remain in Australian hands, but this felt like an appropriate denouement: a honourable share of the spoils, a fitting conclusion to a series that has smoked the senses.
It is the first drawn Ashes series since 1972, and the greatest since 2009 or perhaps even 2005: graced by some sublime cricket, some pretty awful cricket, some exceptionally bad umpiring, wild swings in fortune, humour and hubris and a galaxy of glittering little subplots studding the series like diamonds. The indomitability of Steve Smith. The miracle of Headingley. Unlikely heroes like Jack Leach and Marnus Labuschagne. Familiar champions like Ben Stokes and Josh Hazlewood flexing their talents on the biggest stage of all.
Then there have been the individual duels: the beef that makes Ashes cricket such a rich and potent stew. Stuart Broad and David Warner. Pat Cummins and Joe Root. Jofra Archer and Matthew Wade here on the fourth evening, a thrilling battle of wills and wits and basic manhood. As limbs and minds began to tire, as cabin fever began to set in, a series that has been played in largely good spirits turned acrid at its conclusion, as two wired, fatigued teams threw everything into their final skirmish and went at it like ferrets.
It was a win England badly needed and a win Root badly needed, and a win Trevor Bayliss will treasure as he heads into the sunset. The sight of Tim Paine and his side holding the urn aloft will sting badly, but the fact that their five-year unbeaten home record will stretch to six is at least some consolation. On a turning pitch, but still largely a good one, there were no foregone conclusions as they set out in defence of a 399 target, once Archer and Leach had finally been dislodged in the morning session.
Of course, there were some formalities to get out of the way first. Or, as they’re more conventionally known, the Australian openers. Broad did for them this time, sending Marcus Harris’s off-stump on a spectacular ride, before nabbing Warner for the seventh time in the series. There was a rare failure for Labuschagne, stumped by Jonny Bairstow after slipping a fraction out of his crease, and when Smith followed him, out for just 24, the prospect of an early finish briefly presented itself.
Where were you when Smith was finally out for less than 80? There were few qualms as he stepped across his stumps to clip Broad to leg, just as he has done dozens of times in this series. But this time, Root had stationed Stokes at leg slip for exactly that shot, and as he flung himself low to his left to grab the ball, a capacity crowd rose in a mixture of euphoria and disbelief. Broad tore away in glee. Stokes hurled the ball skywards in triumph. Root leapt onto the back of his giant vice-captain and clung on for dear life, like a jockey trying to ride an elephant.
It was something of a pyrrhic victory, perhaps, given the Ashes had gone and Smith had already beaten them several times over. But England’s wild celebrations betrayed a vivid satisfaction that they had finally, finally cracked the code.
Smith was gone, but Australia were not. Despite the loss of their talisman, they rallied strongly, and nobody stronger than Wade. With nothing to lose, Wade climbed lustily into the England attack, moving Australia past 100, 150 and then 200 with a flurry of boundaries, withstanding the losses of Mitchell Marsh and captain Paine, negotiating a testing spell from Leach, and then seeing off Archer in a battle that will sear itself on the memory.
Wade has been needling England from short-leg all summer, and now as he neared his hundred, England turned to their own enforcer. Archer didn’t disappoint: as he steamed in for over after over, his pace cranking up from 88mph to 93mph to a scarcely credible 95.6mph, The Oval was treated to one last rollercoaster ride. A brilliant yorker was desperately excavated. A wild slash flew agonisingly out of the grasp of Rory Burns at gully.
But Wade survived, reaching his century off Broad, and as the target whittled down towards 150, Australia were just about beginning to believe again. And so with the ball beginning to rip out of the footmarks, Root decided to finish the job himself. First he drew Wade down the pitch and had him gloriously stumped by Bairstow. Then he stationed himself at square leg and pouched Nathan Lyon with a smart low catch off Leach. Then, off the very next ball, he moved himself to mid-wicket, and as Hazlewood clipped the ball in that direction, plucked the ball out of the air with a single, inspired left hand.
And so in a way, everyone got what they wanted, and in a way nobody did. Australia still haven’t won a series in England since 2001; by the time they next return here, the drought will have stretched to more than two decades. But they will return home with the urn, having bowled superbly, read conditions adeptly and husbanded their resources intelligently. For England, meanwhile, pride salvaged and hard work rewarded, a few reputations made and a few careers saved. It wasn’t the result they wanted. But at the end of a summer that English cricket will never forget, it was the finish they deserved.
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