England take the cautious path to glory
After racking up three innings victories and a dazzling collection of statistics over the last five Tests, England have a side that can rank, in the record books at least, alongside the best in Ashes history. Their true standing will be revealed over the next few years and though they have some distance to travel before they can claim to be world No. 1, Andrew Strauss and his team of unwavering pragmatists might just have forged a modern formula to challenge for the title.
England are the golden generation without the glitter, the champions without the swagger and the Ashes heroes without the talisman. Unlike even 2005, there was no 'Freddie' figure in this series. Alastair Cook was no less gargantuan but, despite spending over 2000 minutes at the crease, it was difficult to remember even a single stroke. The two players most naturally suited to the starring role - Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen - had their moments, but never stole the show.
Instead, a team built on the earthly qualities of hard work and patience quietly etched their way into history. In part, the conservatism that filters down from Strauss and Andy Flower is a response to their own resources. Good as they are, James Anderson and Swann are not yet Glenn McGrath and Warne; Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan hardly Joel Garner and Malcom Marshall. But it runs deeper than that. On that heady fourth evening at the SCG, with the Barmy Army in full voice and England marching to victory with an end-of-term sparkle in their step, Strauss would still not part with his mid-on run-saver. And that with Tremlett on a hat-trick and Australia's No. 9 in his sights.
In the equivalent situation it's difficult to imagine Steve Waugh operating with much less than an eight-slip umbrella. For Waugh the show of bravado was crucial to instilling that all-important 'aura' of invincibility. But it's just not England's way. Strauss and the rest of the team have entirely bought in to the strategy of 'bowling dry'. The gaping space between third slip and gully may infuriate former fast bowlers in the commentary box but Strauss does not waver. Suffocate, rather than intimidate, is England's route to success.
In an era where batsmen's egos and averages have been fattened on a diet of flat pitches and fat bats, and their patience thinned on a conveyor-belt of instant cricket, England's instinct for caution could be what separates them from the pack. Four years ago England came to Australia wanting to recreate the drama of 2005 and went looking for wickets in rush. They were dispatched at almost four runs an over (3.83) and lost five-nil. This time they've stacked up 178 maidens and conceded almost a run an over less (2.99). That kind of thrift demands that each bowler toes the party line (and length), shunning the self-interest of the headline ball for a greater team purpose.
Fittingly it was Anderson who provided the model. As recently as a year ago he was more likely to rattle the scoreboard with boundary-balls than he was with wickets. But now he's a poster-boy for austerity. Gone is the search for the start-leg-hit-off magic-balls and down too is his pace, which barely touched 90mph all series. In bowling within himself he protected both his economy rate and his body and it's a formula his team-mates followed.
Tremlett learned the hard way that saving his hulking frame by sacrificing fire for accuracy is a better strategy - both for surviving the congested fixture list and also for taking top-order wickets. Bresnan too has gained, finding stardom that never looked possible a year ago, simply by piling up dot balls. In doing so they have proved that winning in Australia doesn't need mystery wrist-spin or 95mph thunderbolts. Instead common endeavour and a demon ring of cover fielders will suffice.
The comparison with Australia's bowlers is revealing. They suffered from having to chase the game and in their desperation to amend their batsmen's mistakes leaked well over three an over (3.41). Worse still the harder they strove, the more they lost. Doug Bollinger and Ryan Harris both hared in, only to limp off with injury. The one time England were forced off their own pace - trying to recover an 81-run first-innings deficit at Perth - the bowlers disappeared for 3.59 an over.
That they had the luxury of hefty scores behind them at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney was again down more to prudence than panache. It's notable that England's leading run-scorers in this series - Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott - are their two most risk-averse players, both absent from the side of World Twenty20 winners. Compared with the magnetism and inspiration of the stars in past great teams - be it Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Adam Gilchrist or Matthew Hayden - England's caution may not feel like the recipe for domination but allied to the togetherness instilled by Flower and Strauss, they have landed on a combination that will yield results.
For the past two decades Australia has provided the benchmark of, and framework for, success. England heeded the lessons but have now crafted a method that can lead them to the top.
Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo