England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 5th day August 5, 2013

Underwhelming way to secure glorious prize

Having been outplayed at Old Trafford, England retaining the Ashes was met with a subdued atmospshere

This is not what retaining the Ashes is meant to feel like. A generation of England supporters, raised on hubris and weaned on disappointment, who, until 2005, went 16 years waiting for this moment, might have found this like a sip of warm champagne. Anti-climax hung over Old Trafford as tenaciously as the clouds.

It was not just that it rained. We expected that. It was that, before the rain, England were disconcertingly outplayed. Their three best batsmen were all dismissed in the brief window of play possible and, of the two that survived, Joe Root was dropped during a torturous innings that underlined the concerns about his readiness to face the new ball at this level and Ian Bell sustained a blow to his thumb that briefly provoked fears that it may end his involvement in the series. England did not so much cruise past the winning line as collapse on it.

As it was, the ECB confirmed that Bell is not seriously hurt and is not an injury doubt for the fourth Investec Test on Friday. The squad for the game is the XI that played here, plus Graham Onions and Chris Tremlett. Steven Finn remains surplus to requirements and, with Kevin Pietersen having proved his fitness, James Taylor is not required. Both Tremlett and Onions will, perhaps surprisingly, play for their counties in the Friends Life t20 quarter-finals on Tuesday evening.

The pedantic might point out that the series is not decided. And it is true that Australia might yet leave the UK with a 2-2 draw. But they came to win back the urn, not share a series.

Perhaps England are the victims of their own expectations. They have, after all, retained the Ashes in the minimum number of games possible - a feat achieved only once before in a five-match series, in 1928-29 - and they were worthy winners of the first two Tests. There was a time when that would have been enough to warrant unstinting praise. Perhaps it still should be.

Certainly many England supporters will not care a jot how this result was achieved. After years of pain, retaining the Ashes in almost any manner is cause for celebration. To have held the Ashes after three successive series underlines the impression that this is a golden age for English cricket. No England side has achieved such a feat since the 1950s. Maybe it says everything about how far England have progressed in recent times that this result has not provoked caveat-free joy.

"We have found ourselves in situations like this over the past couple of years. We knew we had experience to get through it and proving we are a hard side to beat."
Alastair Cook

It would be wrong to diminish their success too. Series are decided across several weeks, not a few days, and England are not the first side to benefit from some assistance from the weather in such circumstances. It does not negate their achievement.

But England would be deluding themselves if they did not admit to some concerns after this game. The most obvious was the impression Australia's fast bowlers gained more from the pitch than England's. It is true that Australia won an important toss and first use of a good pitch but, even in Australia's second innings, England's seamers failed to find the bounce and movement available to the excellent Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris.

There are various reasons for that. One of them is simply that the Australian pair are stronger than their England counterparts and able to thump the ball into the pitch a little harder. Both attacks gained swing but Australia appeared to swing the ball later and gain more movement off the pitch.

The England attack also looked weary. Perhaps it was the nerves of appearing on his home ground, perhaps it was his workload - he has hardly looked the same since that 14-over spell at Trent Bridge - but James Anderson endured one of his least impressive displays of the last 18 months, while Stuart Broad is, albeit somewhat unfortunately, taking his wickets at a cost of 52.00 apiece so far this series. In the longer-term, Broad needs to strengthen himself considerably if he is to fulfil his potential. In the short-term, a case could be made to rest one or other of them from the team for the next couple of Tests.

The batting is also a worry. Jonathan Trott, in particular, and Cook, by their own high standards, look someway short of their best. Trott has fallen - almost literally - into an old habit of over balancing on to the off side when he plays to leg, while Pietersen should reflect more on his loose stroke, throwing his hands at a ball well outside off stump at a time when his side required him to resist throughout the day, far more than the reasonable umpiring decision that cost his wicket in the second innings. Jonny Bairstow might, in a different era, consider himself fortunate to retain his place.

England captains continue to be defined by their performance in Ashes series and Cook, in his first at the helm, has retained the Urn in the minimum amount of Tests possible. So you might have expected him to be in celebratory mood. Instead he appeared deflated and used a hardly euphoric phrase to describe the atmosphere in the England camp.

"The feeling in the dressing room is very pleasant," Cook said in the voice of a fellow on the phone to the Samaritans. "We wanted to keep the Ashes and we have done that. Now we want to go on and win them.

"It's a strange feeling. We've been behind the eight-ball in this game, but we've fought hard and if you had offered us this position 14 days ago, we would have snatched your hand off.

"We didn't play our best game here and were put under pressure by Australia. But we fought extremely hard, batting a long time. Avoiding the follow-on was crucial, so I can't complain how we have handled this week.

"We have found ourselves in situations like this over last couple of years: the last Test in New Zealand, when Matt Prior batted fantastically well, and in Nagpur, where the whole side batted well. We knew we had experience to get through it. We are proving we are a hard side to beat."

Indeed they are. But with Australia improving and England stuttering, the celebrations will be muted. Both sides head to Durham with something to prove.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo