Australia's success a testament to immense will
It was appropriate that when the final catch was taken, the ball settled in Michael Clarke's hands. The best teams play in the image of their captain and Australia found a compelling blend of adventure and aggression to wipe the floors of their proud land with a bunch of forlorn England cricketers. Never can five matches between two teams backed at even money when the series began have become so one-sided. The margins of defeat bear repetition - 281 runs, 8 wickets, 150 runs, 218 runs, and 381 runs. They are devastating. Numb in defeat, Alastair Cook issued an apology to the many fans who had made the pilgrimage of support.
Clarke's achievement lists him with Warwick Armstrong and Ricky Ponting as the only captains to lead five-nil whitewashes in Ashes history. Cook said it was the best bowling attack he had faced. Clarke called it the best in the world, which will fire up some South Africans on February 12th, when the teams meet in Pretoria. Australia's captain also explained the way in which Darren Lehmann had improved the dressing room. Their relationship, and the contrasting strengths at its core, is close to ideal for the development of a cricket team. It is not unlike the one forged by Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher. In 2005, England played a brand of cricket that surprised Australia in a fine, and at times excruciatingly tense, series that led to the recovery of the Ashes after 16 years. This time it was England who were surprised, or should we say shocked, and who suffered a memorable defeat. Australia had to wait a mere four years for redemption. If only it had been excruciatingly tense.
In the weeks leading up to the first Test in Brisbane, Clarke was under near-unbearable pressure. Ponting had criticised his commitment to the team ethic in his book, while Michael Hussey, in a volume of his own, had insinuated not all was well in "the rooms". The public were sick of losing Test matches and of the back chat. The team was accused of a soft underbelly. Clarke's captaincy was mistrusted, mainly because Australia prefers its sporting heroes a little rougher around the edges. In a startling interview, that captain promised the return of the Ashes but few, if any, believed the fulfilling of such wild ambition to be possible.
From 132 for 6 on the first day at the Gabba, Australia recovered to 295. Not riches, but runs to play with at least. Clarke had been bounced out by Stuart Broad, the worst possible dismissal for a high-class batsman and/or captain because it encourages the opponent to gloat. It was the last English gloat of the summer, for the tables were to turn with indecent haste and to stunning effect. Two hundred and ninety-five proved more than enough as Mitchell Johnson and the rest of Australia's scavenging pack tore Cook's over-confident team to shreds. England managed 136 between them on a blameless pitch. With that substantial first-innings advantage, David Warner went out to play. Reformed, if not quite bible belt yet, this strong and compact streetfighter licked his lips as England licked their wounds. Warner's bullying strokeplay was every bit a barometer of Australian joy as Johnson's searing pace and snarling confrontation.
At the other end Clarke was easing the ball into wide Gabba spaces with one small change to his technique - the movement a little back and across as a trigger to his otherwise exemplary method - and one big change to his approach. From that back foot he took on the short ball, and by the time England worked out they had been duped, the Australian captain had bolted. If England thought they were in a contest, they were wrong. From there on, the contest was over. Johnson's opening salvo became an ongoing assault. The tide had turned irrevocably.
Of all modern captains, only Vaughan and Mark Taylor could match Clarke's imagination and attention to forensic detail. Barely a trick was missed during a campaign in which smart field settings matched intelligent bowling and brilliant catching. Never once did Australia get ahead of themselves, preferring to attend to the needs of the moment with a level head and some old-fashioned common sense. Clarke spoke well to, and about, his team, admitting imperfections and applauding excellence.
Apparently Lehmann has insisted that everyone enjoy their cricket, which is hardly rocket science. But in an age of intense scrutiny, unparalleled platforms of public opinion and an ever voracious media, the soul can go out of the game pretty damn quick. Lehmann appears to have the happy knack of retaining that soul through simple tricks of social interaction and conversation, de-structuring and delegation. The essence of cricket pours out of this uncomplicated man and when it floods the minds of eager cricketers and endorses an exceptional captain, the seeds of success are sown.
Neither Lehmann nor Clarke have even begun to think that this Australian team is the finished article, far from it. What they know is that they have released much of the best play possible from those to hand. Glenn McGrath reckoned he had not seen any Australian attack bowl so well collectively. Ian Healy thought that Chris Rogers' performances best illustrated how a team can become greater than the sum of its parts.
It is now clear that the Australians had an immense will - something so strong, so desperate probably, that some of them might have imploded had success not been achieved. The preparation began while matches were lost at Lord's and the Riverside in Durham during the last English summer. At The Oval in the last Test, Clarke declared the Australian second innings earlier than he would otherwise have done because he wanted to challenge the players in his own team: to see how far he could push them, to see what winning and losing meant to them, man by man. Observations about character, technique and mental strength were noted and applied to the master plan for this series, and how.
Those same observations were made about the England players - Lehmann could be seen on dressing-room balconies furiously writing notes about both teams - and used to determine the most effective way to confront each England player head to head. When Clarke made his promise he knew more than we did. Moreover, he knew more than England could have believed. It was a heist of monumental proportions.
Now England will need to find the same commitment. It must come from within and must first be the responsibility of every England cricketer to examine his own part in the failing and his path to ensure he is never so exposed again. Cook is right to insist that he is the man to oversee the rehabilitation and launch the next era of type, style and performance. He will need those around him to be equally motivated, for the task is daunting. As he said afterwards - "from rock-bottom, the only way is up". Let us hope so. Clarke and Lehmann have shown him the way.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK