Succour for Clarke and joy for Cook
Just when you think you have seen it all, this gloriously unpredictable and rewarding game throws you a curve ball. England's job this morning was to save the match and prepare for a party. The bookies' price against them winning it was 100 to 1, but were it not for the curse of bad light, win it they would surely have done.
Michael Clarke's brave and skilfully judged declaration gave the day a new perspective and Kevin Pietersen's musketeering strokeplay brought The Oval to life. You have, of course, heard that line before. KP and The Oval are as one, a person and a place that exercise no limit on expectation. The miraculous is merely a part of their portfolio, and what pleasure they bring to all who buy into them.
England were denied by the closing of summer, by the dying of its light. A few weeks back and you could have toyed with bat and ball for a while yet but now, with September nigh, the evening shut down and the umpires had to ignore their hearts and stick to the rules - wretched, ill-conceived rules but rules that need consistent application all the same. How the crowd roared their disapproval. Robbed by the rules! How they booed the Australian captain, who had turned to those umpires in his hour of desperation. "It is me who gave you this damn game and now me you berate for pointing out that my men can no longer see the ball," he said to himself through bitten lips. And he was right and the umpires were right but the rules are wrong. The issue of light needs leniency and common sense, not metres and caution. Enough, now to the teams.
There is a view that the 3-0 scoreline flatters England. Maybe, but if so it is only by a match. The crushing victories at Lord's and Chester-le-Street were clear evidence of England's superiority, and frankly, were it not for a freak, the win at Trent Bridge would have been pretty convincing too. In that first Test, surprising nerves led to frantic and unusual cricket. Australia added a combined total of 228 for the tenth wicket, runs that kept them in the game. The unlikely architects were Ashton Agar and James Pattinson. Sure, Phillip Hughes and Bad Haddin played a fine hand but their contribution was as it should be.
After the game the overriding impression was that England had plenty of petrol in the tank, as Graham Gooch might still say. The carelessness in allowing those two tenth wicket partnerships to flourish was a lesson in hubris to Alastair Cook and his team. England were back on their game at Lord's and the Australians were a mile off theirs, the consequence of which was a pasting.
Only in the two matches where Clarke won the toss and was able to bat first have his team competed for the duration. This in itself suggests a mental fragility, one that Clarke is eager to resolve before Brisbane in late November. It is easier to be successful, one way or another, in Australian state and club cricket than it has ever been before. The different formats offer wide opportunity and exaggerated reward, while weekend players are rarely pulled out of their comfort zone by the state and national players who were once a feature of grade cricket. One of many reasons for today's ambitious tactics was to expand the mind of the dressing room with a challenge that had risk with a hint of reward, written all over it.
The sooner the Australian selectors place character and courage above the promise of talent, the sooner the team will find a face. There has been evidence of this at The Oval, where Clarke and others have shown something of the missing mongrel that has so often been a signature of the Australian game. It helped to have runs at No. 3, specifically runs that set the tone in such style. If Shane Watson could nail this down, prayers would be answered - his own and those of the selectors.
It is reasonable to say that Australia would have won at Old Trafford. The pitch had begun to play tricks and three English wickets fell in a manner that suggested more were to come. A normal, uninterrupted course of events at The Oval might have offered another chance. We shall never know. Through the darkness of defeat, Australia felt the great pain of seeing the old enemy lift The Urn and parade the spoils. That in itself should be an inspiration, along with the satisfaction of a day well played if not won.
Close analysis tells us that England played the big points of the series wonderfully well. Having held their nerve during the denouement at Trent Bridge, Cook's experienced team preened its feathers at Lord's. Granted, Australia were woeful but there was something mighty in the way that England tore them apart. Rather as there was to be at Chester-le-Street, on that memorable afternoon when Stuart Broad gorged himself on Australian fear.
The odd thing about these victories was the sense that England's batting had not moved out of third gear. They did not make 400 once in the series, indeed throughout the summer at large England have not made 400. While Cook, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior were mainly off colour, Joe Root glowed brightly twice - which was something to behold - or not at all, which fuels the doubters. Pietersen turned the dimmer up and down, delighting and confounding in equal measure, until his relationship with The Oval properly flicked the switch.
Only Ian Bell was consistently at his best and what a best it is. Few players of any age can have played with so straight a bat and with such comfort from both front and back foot. The charge that his runs have not always meant enough can now be dropped. When history judges this series, Bell's performances will burst from the pages of whatever medium is the zeitgeist.
Consciously or otherwise, England did not feel the need for another gear until today. It is as if the amount of cricket they play has eaten into their desire. Not the desire for success but desire for the process that brings it. Runs have never come as easy as the best batsmen make it look. Momentary lapses come at a cost. Only if pushed and pushed will a tired mind find its way.
Time after time, the bowlers have saved the day. Bell was Man of the Series but James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann were the men of the series, the men who won the Ashes. Men with big hearts, strong legs and lungs and supreme skill. This is the age of batsmen. The age of dry, flat decks and big bats. And time after time, the bowlers saved the day.
When the three wise ones of England gather, they will reflect on Australia's improvement since Lord's and investigate how surprisingly close the matches since have become. This brings succour to Michael Clarke and the leading lights of his team, all of whom have already begun thinking about Brisbane in just 88 days' time and believing that there is a way out of the darkness.
England have begun thinking too, and Cook, Andy Flower and Gooch will know in their hearts that the batsmen have more to give. That there is, as Goochie will tell them, more petrol in the tank. Meanwhile, Cook can reflect on the finest moment of his life, the one where he joined an exclusive list of England captains who have raised a little urn of ashes to the sky. Bravo! Expect both sides to be at the limit of their game in Australia, when the second instalment begins its occupation of our minutes, hours and days.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK