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How The Ashes confirmed the world's biggest Test cricket rivalry

The riveting series between Australia and England has been a celebration of Test cricket at the highest level

The Ashes series between England and Australia has been gripping.
The Ashes series between England and Australia has been gripping. (Reuters)

The ongoing Ashes series in England is heading into an anticlimactic end this Thursday, after the English weather had the final say on who retains the Ashes urn. The fourth Test at Old Trafford, Manchester, got washed out in the last two days, leaving Australia with an unassailable 2-1 lead before the final Test. The Ashes tradition ordains that the current holder will retain the urn even if England win to square the series at the Oval in London.

Nevertheless, despite the weather robbing us of a denouement, this has been the most riveting Test series since India’s mind-blowing comeback to win 2-1 in Australia in 2020-21. What makes it an apt showpiece of the drama of Test cricket is the contrasting approaches of two equally matched, talented sides. Bazball is the name of England’s attacking style and it has met its bete noire in the hard-nosed Aussie pushback. 

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Australia pulled off two narrow wins at Birmingham and Lord’s, thanks in part to England going over the top with their attacking style. England neutralised one of those losses by coming out on top in a close finish on a challenging pitch at Headingley, Leeds. Then we saw what England is capable of in the fourth Test at Old Trafford, before rainy Manchester denied the hosts an equalising victory. 

England’s 592 at a run rate of 5.5, with opener Jack Crawley scoring 189 in 182 balls and an irked Jonny Bairstow topping that off with an unbeaten 99 in 81 balls, set a new benchmark in Test cricket. But, even though Australia’s bowling was torn to shreds, and skipper Pat Cummins was at his wit’s end on the field, their batsmen managed to hang tough. A fifth wicket century stand between Marnus Labuschagne and Mitchell Marsh frustrated England’s push to win before the rain. 

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Self-inflicted wounds

England fans are shedding copious tears over the weather gods denying them their due at Old Trafford. But, truth be told, England should be blaming themselves for falling behind in the series and failing to snatch the coveted Ashes urn. Faulty selections, a premature declaration, and a ‘walk-out’ played a bigger part in the hosts getting the wrong end of the stick.

James Anderson will turn 41 during the final Oval Test. He tops the all-time list of wicket-takers for England with a tally of 689, but the stalwart has taken only four wickets in three matches in this series. The decision to bring him back into the playing 11 on his home ground in the fourth Test probably prevented England from forcing a result while there was still time. The young, quick Josh Tongue, who scalped David Warner and Steven Smith in both innings of the second Test, and also had the prolific Usman Khawaja among his five victims, has been warming the bench since then.

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England’s over-reliance on medium pace cost them dearly in the very first Test of the series when the Aussie tail held on for a two-wicket victory, thanks to a 55-run ninth wicket stand between Cummins and Nathan Lyon at the end. The advent of speedsters Mark Wood and Chris Woakes, who shared 13 wickets, made a big difference in the third Test. So the preference for Anderson, whose pace no longer has bite, over Tongue, whose pace and action discomfited the Aussie batsmen, was more sentimental than sound in cricketing terms.

It’s also a moot point whether Wood was left out of the first two Tests because of injury concerns or addled selection. The way he bowled on the opening day of the third Test at Headingley, with an average speed of 90mph (about 144kmph), to take five wickets, suggests that England could have played him right from the beginning of the series.

To declare or not to declare

Selection is not the only self-inflicted wound that has made England face the ignominy of falling behind their arch rivals on home turf. The bravado of skipper Ben Stokes in declaring at 393/8 on the first day of the series in Edgbaston bit them hard on the final day of that Test. 

There was a reversal in the fourth Test at Old Trafford, where Stokes could have probably declared earlier to give England more time to snatch a win, as heavy rain was forecast for the final two days. Instead, England carried on enjoying Jonny Bairstow’s pummelling of the Aussie bowlers to amass 592 and take a 275-run lead.

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Cheering on Bairstow, who ended up one run short of a century, had an added verve because of the wicketkeeper-batsman’s ‘walk-out’ in the second Test. Bairstow walked out of the crease after the final ball of the over, without waiting to see if the ball was dead and the over had been called, and got stumped by his alert Aussie counterpart, Alex Carey. It probably cost England the Test match.

There was much brouhaha over the morality of stumping a batsman in this fashion. But in the final analysis, England will have to acknowledge they let the Ashes slip out of their grasp with some moves that were just not so smart.

Regardless of the Ashes being retained, however, the final Test at the Oval will be another good advertisement for Test cricket, with England seeking redemption and Australia wanting to end on a high as clear 3-1 winners. England’s selection of pace bowlers and Australia’s batting stalwarts, David Warner and Steven Smith, who have underperformed in the series by their standards, will be under the scanner.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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