England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day August 22, 2013

An odd series in so many ways

For the most part, the tension of a contest has been lacking, and listlessness has been a recurring feature
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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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • android_user on August 27, 2013, 1:00 GMT

    @britop yet on these batting pitches England still failed to pass 400 and their top order batted woefully, what does this tell you?

  • brittop on August 24, 2013, 23:54 GMT

    @TheBigBoodha on (August 23, 2013, 1:07 GMT): I shall deny that Australia have done "most of the attacking". When? Their bowling tactic has been much the same as much of England's - bowl "dry" and wait for mistakes. If they had wanted to be attacking at Manchester, they could have batted faster or declared earlier (they knew the likelihood of rain). As you've said, they won the toss and batted first on two pitches made for batting first. Lucky or what? Also, don't think it's lucky breaks for England that have lost Australia's winning positions - it's them crumbling at the first sign of pressure.

  • cricketeria on August 24, 2013, 22:42 GMT

    It's been a gripping series full of old fashioned test cricket. You want to know why Australia lost sambit? IPL. You know why India lost 4-0 to both Australia and England? IPL. THIS series is test cricket. This is cricket. Good players like Bell and Clarke make fine hundreds. IPL players like Shane Watson keep getting lbw. India preparing sand pits just to get "rewenge" on Australia is not cricket. And England beat them despite that because they play cricket, not IPL.

  • Sir_Ivor on August 24, 2013, 15:56 GMT

    The title of Sambit's latest piece cannot be agreed with more.In this Ashes we had a memorable First test which Australia lost by just 14 runs batting last against all odds and despite Stuart Broad's epic performance as a batsman. The second Test was England's all the way. Australia was hammered pointless and the English media were truly chuffed up offering everything graceful for the vanquished. Quietly they wondered if the hype of the Ashes was indeed justified considering the one-sidedness of the contest. It was Old Trafford that Australia won the toss for the first time and England bowled first. On the last day England was on the ropes black eyed and ready to give up their 2-0 lead. Then the rains came and Australia was pulled back from their final punch. The match was a draw. In the 4th Test once again England won the toss and they won well. Then we have the last game at the Oval. Australia won the toss again and looked like winning till the rains came. Truly an odd Ashes series.

  • king78787 on August 24, 2013, 12:42 GMT

    Odd but not listless. Trent Bridge was thrilling and no one could predict what would happen next. Old Trafford was a incredibly even Test and rain robbed the Test of a proper conclusion. Australia have played as good as England but we are 3-0 up. So odd but not listless.

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2013, 8:18 GMT

    I think the series has highlighted one more fact about tests. That is: Batting first is a huge bonus in a test match, especially if you have good bowling attack. All five tests have been dominated/won by a team batting first. No wonder why Ponting was a win-the-toss-bat-first kind of captain.

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2013, 5:44 GMT

    why dont you bring down the details of the players playing in IPL.. if you see australian team have almost 6 players play in T20 kinda leagues and that has discarded the skill of tests.... IPL and similar kinda leagues destroyed the skills of test cricket...

  • almacdnl on August 24, 2013, 3:37 GMT

    Anderson lacks pce for Australian pitches and can't reverse the Kookaburra ball. Broad lacks consistency and Swan has niggles. Take away these three and what is left in the bowling dept? Bar Tremlett and/or Finn bowlingcupboard looks bare for downunder.

  • RohanMarkJay on August 24, 2013, 0:32 GMT

    Australia played poorly, in the first two tests. That said this would have been a very different ashes series had Australia managed to win the first test against the odds with an outrageous partnership between Ashton Agar, Phil Hughes and Haddin. After Lord's this series became a boring damp squib. Had Oz won I believe this would have been a close, exciting test series. Lets see what happens when they play the second leg in Oz. Hoping for a better contest down there. Because Australia will really look back and think they have played some really brainless cricket and really didn't deserve to win the ashes in the UK especially after the first two tests.

  • scarab666 on August 24, 2013, 0:09 GMT

    Had Stuart Broad done the honourable thing and walked we would be viewing this 5th test as possibly the decider to the english leg of the ashes series instead we are watching one of the most lacklustre tests of all time ( I'm not because I've now lost interest ). This does more harm to Test match cricket than T20 ever did and just plays into the hands of those wanting to kill of Test cricket.