The Investec Ashes 2013 August 26, 2013

England knew how to seize moment

England's brand of cricket was not always admired during the Ashes but they able to seize the moment and produce periods of exhilarating play
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It is remarkable how demands change. A decade ago, any Ashes victory would have been celebrated as a stunning achievement. It is not so long ago it warranted an open-top bus parade through the streets of London and MBEs all round.

Now, it seems, the bar has been raised. Victory is not enough. England are not expected just to win, but to win with style and flair and grace. Despite the 3-0 result, they have been criticised for their perceived negativity, their perceived gamesmanship and their perceived limitations. They are judged by far harsher criteria than they used to be. They are the victims of their own success.

It was probably fitting that the series should end with a controversial umpiring decision. Issues associated with the DRS and umpiring errors have dogged the series with wearying regularity and overshadowed other on-field matters. The farce with bad light just showed, once again, how far the game's administrators have allowed the rules to stray from the necessity to respect spectators. Common sense is anything but common at the ICC.

It was also probably fitting that England's moment of success was mitigated by another negative news story. Reports that England players may have urinated on The Oval pitch after the game will serve not just to diminish the standing of the winning team, but deflect attention from Australia's lacklustre display. Australia may have lost the series, but they continue to win the propaganda war.

That is not to condone the actions of England's players. They sound both bizarre and uncouth. But there is a theme here: after almost every game, a story has emerged that has been designed to denigrate and demean the most successful Test team England have produced for many, many years. Whether it has been about England players smoking, England players not walking, the perceived deficiencies of England's captain compared to Australia's, or the latest 'slashes' story, all too often the narrative of this series has been manipulated to divert attention from Australia's failings.

England set out to win this series. They did not set out to entertain, to revive the spirit of the sport, to win 5-0, or to win Tests in three or four days. They set out to win. So this result can only be judged an unmitigated success. Many England supporters - particularly those who remember how grim things used to be - will find the margin entertainment enough.

England play hard, pragmatic cricket. They have developed not just a belief in their ability to win, but a hatred of losing. Those are excellent qualities and they have served the side well. They are now unbeaten in 13 Tests and have won seven of those, including five out of seven this summer. Not since 1977 have Australia contested an Ashes series without a single victory.

England went a long way to winning this series in the planning. They reasoned, long before the first ball was bowled, that the key difference between the sides was in the strength of spin bowling. They reasoned that the Australian seam attack was dangerous, that the Australian spin attack was modest and that the best chance of negating the former without incurring risk from the latter was by preparing slow, dry surfaces. That would take the sting out of the Australian seamers and highlight the greater potency of Graeme Swann over his Australian rivals.

It worked, too. While Swann claimed 26 wickets in the series - the most by any bowler on either side - the four spinners utilised by Australia claimed 15 between them. Andy Flower, who not only planned this strategy but persuaded the groundstaff to implement it, is, unquestionably, one of the key reasons in England's success.

So, too, is Ian Bell. While the rest of the England top-order endured disappointing series, Bell three times produced centuries when his team most required them. Each one has led to England winning. After a tough year or so, Bell has bounced back with the series that may well define his career. Mature, calm and possessing the confidence to defend for long periods without allowing himself to lose patience or composure, this was the style of batting that Bell's talent always suggested he could play.

The downside - such as there is one - in England's choice of pitch for this series was contested on relatively slow surfaces. That did nothing to encourage positive, attractive cricket and rendered much of the series attritional. It was, at times, even mediocre, compared to the high-standards of previous Ashes encounters.

There is a theory - a theory expounded by those who peddle Australian propaganda mainly - that England will not like the quicker pace of Australian pitches. While it is true that Swann may find less assistance, the top-orders and seam attacks of both sides will probably prefer such surfaces. It may well result in a more entertaining series.

But it is simplistic to admonish England for their tactics. Apart from truly outstanding teams, the likes of West Indies of the '80s or the Australia team that followed, Test cricket has often been as much about patience and discipline as flair and adventure. England have been successful playing a brand of cricket that, in the T20 world, may appear somewhat sedate, but it would be wrong to underestimate its value.

Besides, after long passages of careful cricket, England were able to seize the moment and produce periods of exhilarating play. They were behind on first innings in four of the five Tests but, whether it was Swann or Bell or Stuart Broad or James Anderson, they invariably produced outstanding individual performances to define games.

Australia might do well to learn from England, not mock them. Certainly James Faulkner, a man without a Test victory to his name, lecturing Flower and co. on tactics at the end of the third day of the final Tests was incongruous. It was like a mouse telling a lion how to roar.

There are a few clouds in the distance. Two or three of this England team - and its main coach - are rather closer to the end of their careers than the start and there is no sign of a replacement for Swann. He may be appreciated more after he has gone. His contribution has been immense.

But such issues can wait. England have retained the Ashes. They have retained them without losing a game and without playing at their best.

English cricket is not perfect, but it is much better than it used to be. And it better than Australia's. In a landscape where victories between the two nations remain the benchmark by which they are judged, the current team deserve rather more than the begrudging praise they are receiving.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cricinfouser on August 28, 2013, 14:02 GMT

    I find it extraordinary to read so many negative comments about England and Cook's captaincy. People have such short memories! Just 12 months ago, this side was in crisis - utterly dominated by a brilliant SA, with the team in turmoil due to the KP affair, Strauss resigns, leaving Cook with a shocking mess to sort out. A year later, Cook has won in India, drawn in NZ (now that series *was* a disappointment), beaten NZ at home 2-0, and beaten Aus at home 3-0. If anyone had predicted that sequence of results this time last year, they would have been laughed out of town! Yet we hear this endless carping: "Cook is too negative" - really? Negative captains don't inspire match-winning performances - think of Cook's inspiration in the dressing room before the final session in Durham. A negative captain wouldn't have even attempted that run chase on the last evening at the Oval.

  • Chris_Howard on August 28, 2013, 13:35 GMT

    @Chris Ward Well said. Being Aussie, I get sick of our media (and a lot of fans) jumping on every small achievement and making out we are suddenly brilliant.

  • 2MikeGattings on August 28, 2013, 12:43 GMT

    IMO the pitch preparation was one of the most unsatisfactory features of this series. Criticism of England's slow batting can largely be laid at the groundsman's door. And the toss was far too important. I wonder what the results would have been if Australia had won all 5 tosses. My guess is that they would still have lost the first 2 tests because they picked the wrong players, but Chester Le Street might have been a different story.

  • YorkshirePudding on August 28, 2013, 8:11 GMT

    @gazoontapede, I think you seem to have forgoten that England played on wickets, made to order by MS Dhoni and the BCCI in 2012, and remind me what the result was, 2-1 to England wasnt it.

    In regards to Faulkner, having seen him bowl, he looks like he has promise but really not that impressive as an allrounder, but difficult to judge after 1 game, Jackson Bird was supposed to be a good as McGrath, he didnt impress.

    In regards to england retirements, there are maybe 3 that are due within the next 4 years, Swann who at 34 is getting on, KP at 33 might look to wards more lucrative T20 leagues, but will want to set some records, and finally Anderson who at 31 is entering the last stages of his bowling career and it will depend on injurues.

    All the others Prior & Bell are 31 and as bastmen have 5-6 years, the others are all sub 30, and unless theres a career threatening injury, will be around for another 6-10 years.

  • Front-Foot-Lunge. on August 28, 2013, 8:01 GMT

    My only concerns, as a proud Englishman, are:

    * Anderson doing well in only one test, his career average of 30 revealing itself to be entirely reasonable/fitting * Swann looking his age and also bowling at a tick under 30 * Cook's dreadful captaincy, reactive and defensive as always

    Ultimately Australia gave us more of a fight than we bargained for and will ever admit to, and our media did its best to dilute their successes and focus on their negatives, ignoring larger 'controversies' such as the Panesar incident or the urinating English players.

    Broad, under Cook's instruction, made us look like sore losers with his shoelace incident and hypocrisy re: bad decisions. This diluted the wonderful performance by Ian Bell - without him we'd have lost the series.

    We are a boring, methodical side, which is why even parts of our society are willing to admit that we lack flair, myself included, however we are effective. Australia are a long way off but closing, Cook needs to sort it out.

  • 5wombats on August 28, 2013, 7:52 GMT

    @ gazoontapede on (August 28, 2013, 7:04 GMT) what are you talking about? England found the Indian pitches 6 months ago very much to their liking and won the series there 2-1, in case you forgot. The bleating from the Aussies, including their management and players has been extremely amusing as the results just have not gone the way they assumed they would. I haven't seen that much gloating from England fans, but I've seen an awful lot of whingeing and excuse making from Aussies. Enjoy.

  • gazoontapede on August 28, 2013, 7:04 GMT

    I've read how England have more decorum.(pissing on the pitch) And Australia have no culture alah D.Gower. You won ,its done and dusted. How the Ausies cant stop whingeing.Faulkner should shut his mouth what would he know about cricket. The last Aussie that spoke out like Faulkner tore your hearts out for years.Beware mr Faulkner my pommie friends. He has what it takes and is just starting out. Mr Dobell says 2 or 3 are at the end of thier carreers ,try 4 or 5 mabey even 6.Cant wait to see if you whinge about Indian wickets next time you tour there. Seeing it was such a triumph to have doctored your own wickets at home.The gloating from the english i have found extremely amusing as the results are no different from the 80's alah Gattings side 86 or gowers sides pre 89. We Aussie fans know the more you win the more your going to hurt when you lose. Its not not that far off.

  • 5wombats on August 28, 2013, 6:25 GMT

    Good discussion here. My take on series; 1 Aus went to England not expecting to win, and they didn't. 2 Knowing this, Aus wanted to "get something out of" the series. They didn't. 3 Aus always play smoke and mirrors, strong or weak team bluff is always a big factor they hope it will have some impact. It didn't. 4 Aus batting only came off when it batted first. When it batted second it looked flakey, and not just against Swann. Frankly - Aus batting looks terrible and is likely to not be any better on the fast bouncy pitches proposed in Aus. 5 Aus best bowler the excellent Harris is likely to play only 2 or 3 games in Aus. Without Harris the Aus attack looks average at best. Englands bowling is fit, proven in Aus and has the measure of the Aus batsmen. 6 England batsmen did not perform as well as expected - but because our bowlers bowled as expected, it didn't matter. Conclusion; England the better side. Not much will change in the next 12 weeks. England to win in Aus.

  • jmcilhinney on August 28, 2013, 3:09 GMT

    I have been critical of England's approach myself occasion. They do seem, at times, to allow themselves to get becalmed and, even if they do manage not to get out for some time, when they inevitably do get out, they have nothing to show for it. I think we saw some of that in UAE against Pakistan in particular and also in the first Test in SL. Maybe the first Test in India too. To my mind, that approach will cause them to lose some games that they might have drawn and to draw some games that they might have won. They could even lose the odd game that they might have won. In the case of the last Ashes Test at the Oval though, I have absolutely no issue with the way England batted. Once Australia scored ~500, even without rain, the chances of an England win were remote at best but the chances of an England loss were very real. The way England batted on the final day showed quite clearly that they felt that they were safe once they avoided the follow on, which they were.

  • GrindAR on August 27, 2013, 23:19 GMT

    @Jaybird67: You are ridiculously on spot. Isolating Clarke alone... yes, but applicable only when his team wud've had at-least 3-4 consistent performers. You name one, who performed consistently in Aus camp (Excluding Ryan Harris)... Betting on that setup to inflict a win without the risk of loosing the match...Apparently, he escaped an embarrassment of unnecessary risk taking (mercy of umpires), as eng played their last innings as close to T20 mindset.

    You also put a light on why eng batted slowly- postmortem thoughts... is their faith in their resilience, as they should in last innings. They did not try to put Aus in pathetic situations... Whenever they sensed out of control situations, Broad (almost single handed) brought things under control, on all such situations. It does not mean Cook is greater than Clarke. He just had the right person at his disposal.

    I think comparing Cook and Clarke is rubbish. They don't even match in 10% of the attributes. They are completely different