Unstoppable England create their own history
England were kept waiting for their moment of sweet release - an hour and 53 minutes in fact - until Chris Tremlett kicked a length ball off the inside edge and into the stumps of Australia's No. 11, Michael Beer. But far from being a frustration, their leisurely saunter to victory was an opportunity to soak in a day that will live with these players until they are buried as far into history as Douglas Jardine, Len Hutton, Ray Illingworth, and every other England cricketer who has played a part in winning an Ashes series in Australia.
"It's going to be a dressing room full of pride this afternoon," said England's victorious captain, Andrew Strauss. "And probably a bit of alcohol I would have thought." Some six hours after the final wicket had fallen, Strauss was true to his word, as he and his unsteady team-mates staggered out to the precise spot where Beer had been bowled, and sat in a circle to crack open some stubbies and suck in that winning feeling.
A crowd of 19,274 rolled through the turnstiles free of charge on the final day of the series, and some 17,000 of those were ecstatic England fans, parked down at third man at the Randwick End and rattling through a repertoire of Barmy Army songs - "Swann will tear you apart", "That Mitchell Johnson …" - that are sure to appear in these players' dreams, for better (and in many Australians' cases for worse), for months and years to come.
It was a day punctuated by showers, and maybe even by tears, as Paul Collingwood - a self-proclaimed "softie" - was given the honour of leading the players down the pavilion steps and onto the field for his final day as a Test cricketer. It was also punctuated by a handful of meaty blows, as Steven Smith took the opportunity to snaffle his first Ashes half-century, a futile gesture that used to be England's stock-in-trade in situations such as this. But as each of England's players in turn responded to their fans' request for "a wave", it was clear that this was no ordinary morning of Ashes cricket. Not for a generation has an Australian defeat been so inevitable.
"It feels pretty special if I'm honest," said Strauss. "Until an Ashes series is finally over you've got half an eye on what's to come, so even in Melbourne we were still very conscious that we wanted to finish on a high and show people that we deserved to win this series. Now we've done that I think we can have a big sigh of relief and be very proud of what we've achieved, because not many sides have come out here and won, certainly not many that [have won] as emphatically as we did in the end."
England's triumph has been staggeringly conclusive, not merely because of the sizes of their victories or the magnitude of their statistical achievements, but for the breadth and depth of the contributors along the way. Alastair Cook's gargantuan tally of 766 runs in seven innings was the stand-out performance - maybe even of the decade, let alone the series - but as Michael Vaughan would testify, after racking up 633 in England's 4-1 defeat eight years ago, it would have counted for nothing without support from the other end.
It wasn't just support, but solidarity that Cook received along the way, as England turned the statistical tables after their peculiar triumph in 2009, and outscored Australia by nine centuries to three. Their final innings of the series, 644, was their highest of all time in Australia, and only their third 600-plus total in Ashes cricket since the second world war - the second of which, 5 for 620 declared, came three Tests ago in Adelaide. With 513 at Melbourne and that unforgettable 1 for 517 in the second innings at the Gabba, England even outstripped the Wally Hammond-powered campaign of 1928-29 in passing 500 on an unprecedented four separate occasions.
"It's not often you get as many people in great form as we've had on this tour, but when you do it's a pretty hard force to stop," said Strauss. "You've seen what our side's all about, it's about discipline and patience and building pressure, and relying on performances from all 11 people. What happens over the course of a series - and we found in 2006-07 - that once one side gets on top and wins emphatically once or twice, then it's very hard to come back at them. I think that's maybe where we got to in this Test match, because we were as confident as I've ever seen an England team."
The bowling, in its own way, was every bit as remarkable. With the exception of the second innings at the Gabba, where England were limited to 26 overs on a surface better suited to the Timeless Test of 1928-29, they claimed every single Australian wicket bar the injured Ryan Harris at Melbourne, and did so with a repertoire of seam, spin, swing and thrift that few imagined could come to them so easily in conditions that were thought to be so alien.
James Anderson is an unlikely name to bracket alongside Harold Larwood, Frank Tyson and John Snow - the out-and-out pacemen whose names are synonymous with the triumphs of 1932-33, 1954-55 and 1970-71. However, with 24 wickets at 26.04, and no more than four in any given innings, his claim to a place in that pantheon is immense. They said he would not be able to make the Kookaburra dance to his tune, and he demonstrated a mastery of every weapon a modern fast bowler could require; new-ball swing at Adelaide, conventional seam at Melbourne, and old-ball reverse at Sydney, as Australia's batting crumbled for the final time on another blameless surface.
More than anything, however, it was the frugality of England's methods that pushed Australia to the brink. As Strauss admitted in the aftermath of the Melbourne win, the greatest lesson of the 2006-07 whitewash had been the power of suffocation - never more aptly demonstrated than at Adelaide in that fateful second Test, when England's collapse was set in motion by a run-rate that never exceeded two an over.
So England adopted the technique, and adapted it to their own purposes. Stuart Broad may have claimed just two wickets at 80.50 in the series before succumbing to his stomach injury, but he set the benchmark for attrition by conceding his runs at just 2.30 an over, a policy that was adopted with staggering success by Tim Bresnan when his own turn came to front up in the festive finale. But above all there was Anderson, whom Australians recall for a four-ball an over four years ago, diligently buzzing along the party line, and following the exhortation of his bowling coach David Saker, that a cuttable delivery was the work of the devil.
"I certainly had a feeling after the last Ashes out here that the best way to compete out here is to strangle the opposition, especially Australia, I suppose," said Strauss. "In order to do that you need very accurate bowlers, and fortunately very accurate bowlers turned up at the right time for us. We knew pretty much what we were going to get out of them. We're very fortunate that those guys were able to deliver so the plan was able to work."
Little of what transpired, however, would have been possible without the holy ghost of England's Ashes-winning trinity, a set of fielders who, as a unit, can scarcely have been bettered in the team's entire Test history. Leading the line in that department - as he has done throughout his international career - was Paul Collingwood, whose nine catches were the most by any outfield player, and included the outstanding pluck of Ricky Ponting in the first innings at Perth. Meanwhile Jonathan Trott, a potential weak link, turned himself into a dead-eyed stalker at midwicket, from where he pinged down the stumps at Adelaide to run out Simon Katich without facing a ball, and set the standard for England's "perfect" Test.
"I think we have proved it is possible for English sides to win out here, and proved you don't need a mystery spinner or a guy that bowls at 95mph to do it," said Strauss. "You just need a lot of guys performing well and consistently. Australia will regenerate and come back strong, because that is the way Australian sport is, but I think we have overcome a barrier. But if we just turn up next time expecting to win we will get the treatment we have had for the last 24 years."
Whether Strauss returns in four years' time remains to be seen - the likelihood is that, at the age of 37, he will already have passed the reins to his deputy, Alastair Cook, whose formidable performance on this trip ensures he will be treated with nothing but reverence when he next sets foot on these shores. But as was the case in 2009, the time for proper reflection will have to wait until he's settled back in an armchair with his pipe and slippers,and no doubt replaying in his mind the images he accrued on a memorable final morning.
"I think at the end of my career I will sit back and think it is one of the most special times in my career definitely," he said. "But while I am captaining the side I am not doing my job properly if I am not looking forward to what is to come, and trying to get the guys to keep improving and going forward as a side. I can't pat myself on the back too much at this stage and even if I did I don't think my team-mates would let me."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.