An odd series in so many ways
To be at a cricket ground on the first morning of a Test match has always brought to me a sense of renewal. And in London, I enjoy the familiarity of the routine. The rush out of the parting doors on the tube, the springy walk up the escalators, station attendants urging fans not to forget to touch out with their Oyster cards while passing through turnstiles that have been left open, the gaggle of ticket touts brazenly soliciting customers, policemen gently ordering fans off the main street, the smell of early-morning beer, a few ties and lots of hats; and inside the ground, the spectacular sight of a packed stadium in the morning light.
The walk up to The Oval this time lived up in every sense but one. Drawing near the steps that lead up to the press box, there was a strange and unfamiliar feeling of emptiness. And then it occurred to me that this was a whole new experience: I have been to a few before, but never has my first live experience of a series been a dead-rubber Test.
Of course, every Test means something. England have never beaten Australia 4-0 (though they have beaten them 5-1). And Australia haven't left England without winning a Test since 1977. When Australia worked themselves into a winning position at Old Trafford, I had wildly fantasised about the Oval Test being the decider. Failing that, 5-0 was a far more appealing prospect than 4-0.
But there is something more. I have watched almost every ball of it, and this has not been a series to stir the senses. It has been a struggle to find a defining theme, one that will linger on in memory after this summer is done.
Ian Bell, our columnist, comes close. It has been a slaying-of-the-demons kind of series for him, but only the future will be the judge of whether his three centuries - and there could be more - became the stepping stone to a level that he has always promised. Bell is a picture-perfect batsman who has always looked destined for deeds greater than he has managed to achieve. But somehow, despite the most delightful late cuts and cover drives, his batting does not quite leave an indelible mark. That none of his three hundreds has led to a Man-of-the Match award - he was unlucky to lose out to Joe Root at Lord's - perhaps says something.
But there is perhaps a theme. It has come up in most of conversations I have had with writers and journalists in London in the last few days. Weird. Strange. Bizarre. These are words that have come up often. Three-nil would point to an overwhelming dominance of one team over the other, but with a bit more luck for Australia, the series could have been 2-2.
Here are some numbers. If you discount the Lord's Test, which was embarrassingly one-sided, and the ongoing match, Australia have scored more runs than England (1769 against 1563) at more runs per wicket (32.8 against 29.5) and have taken only one wicket fewer (53 against 54), but rain robbed them of the opportunity to improve this by a significant margin at Old Trafford.
Several assumptions, some of them contrasting, could be drawn from these numbers. The series has been incredibly close. Australia have fluffed the moments that have really mattered. And England have seized theirs. Or perhaps it has been a battle between the woeful and the average.
It would have been simple to say that the series has been much closer than the scoreline suggests, but even that would be a half truth. For the most part, the tension of a contest has been lacking, and listlessness has been a recurring feature. More wickets have been lost than earned, and for large swathes of play, bowlers have chosen to bore batsmen out rather than hunt for wickets.
There are balls and spells that stand out. Stuart Broad in both innings at Chester-le-Street, and his dismissal of Michael Clarke in the second innings there; a similar delivery from James Anderson to bowl Clarke at Trent Bridge. Ryan Harris has produced intelligent and manful spells, Peter Siddle has carried Australian bowling in a manner that could be termed heroic. But the series has lacked what fans cherish most: a little magic every now and then.
This Ashes will be remembered for lots of things you would rather not remember. The fall-out of David Warner punching Root (although that began in the Champions Trophy), poor umpiring, the malfunctioning of the DRS, the controversy over Broad's not walking, and Australia's bizarre selections. But oddly, or perhaps inevitably, the more compelling stories have come from the losers. Ashton Agar's unlikely and dramatic debut; the twisting narrative of Shane Watson; Chris Rogers' maiden hundred at 35; and, who would have thought it, a hundred from Steven Smith, brought up with a six for effect.
England owe no apology for being dull. They have acquired what a team requires most: the knowhow to win. After decades of misery, their fans will cherish that much more than showy brilliance that ends in tears. The English establishment has made sure to deny Australia any advantage by preparing, Test after Test, the most un-English pitches seen here in decades. No one could recall the last instance of two England spinners bowling in the first session of a Test match in England.
The worry for England will be that they haven't managed to win as comprehensively as the scoreline suggests. That is an odd thing to say by itself, for history remembers sport ultimately by scorecards, but that the flimsiest Australian batting line-up to tour England since 1985 has put up the two highest totals in the series can either be explained as yet another bizarre factoid of the series or as a pointer to a larger truth: the Ashes haven't caught fire this summer. Not every year can be 2005, but even during the wretchedly one-sided '90s, there was Shane Warne.
Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo