England knew how to seize moment
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