Sometimes, in a team game, a team can be too good for the good of the game. The 2006-07 Australia side, stuffed with all-time greats bursting for vengeance, were like that. The Ashes series that they won 5-0 delivered excellence without excitement. This one, on the other hand, delivered excitement without excellence.
The Test championship, which has relegated them from first to fourth, has been harsh on the Aussies, but fair. They have plunged from the highest heights to mid-table middlingness. The way they played the second half of this series was like their last two years in microcosm. In saving the Edgbaston Test and winning at Headingley, they showed great qualities - grit, resourcefulness, disciplined skill. But when they lost the toss at The Oval, and made one of the great selection howlers by leaving out their spinner, they were ordinary again. Meanwhile England, who bob up and down almost mechanically, like kids on a seaside bungee-trampoline, managed to find their feet and their form again at the critical moment. They didn't even get vertigo - though they were flirting with it when Andrew Flintoff produced that run-out. Flintoff's throw from wide mid-on, a position he had seldom wandered into in an 11-year Test career, was inspired and inspiring, and it settled not only England's nerves, but the series.
As a contest, the 2009 Ashes were terrific: beautifully balanced, always absorbing, packed with drama. The upper hand went first to Australia, then England, then Australia, then England. In a most unexpected twist, it was Australia who collapsed the most - three times in the first innings of the last four Tests. The pundits kept harping on about the century count, which was 7-1 to Australia after four Tests and 8-2 in the end. Hardly anyone noticed the five-for count, which was 4-2 to England. And five-fors do more to win matches, for the simple reason that they take out half the opposition. A rare five-for from Flintoff sealed one England victory; a less rare one from Stuart Broad set up the other - but it was very rare indeed in its suddenness, its precision, its Martin Bicknell movement and economy. Broad's 5 for 37 made his 6 for 91 look like 1 for 128.
It was significant that both England's key spells came from allrounders. The other stat the pundits kept citing was the one showing that all the leading wicket-takers and most of the leading run-scorers in the series were Australian. To look at these figures, which we got the chance to do a hundred times on Sky, you'd have thought that Andrew Strauss was fighting a lone hand. He was, to an extent - but only in the top order. England's bottom half were very handy. In 14 appearances the men at seven, eight and nine (Flintoff, Broad and Swann) made as many runs between them as two, three and four or five (Cook, Bopara and Collingwood), and they got them with more verve. England's second-biggest boundary-hitter, after Strauss, was Broad.
Australia had allrounders in their squad - Andrew McDonald, Shane Watson, arguably Mitchell Johnson - but they didn't have any on the pitch. McDonald was ignored, and Watson, while shining as a makeshift opener, was horribly rusty with the ball. Johnson had made stacks of runs in South Africa, but he mostly flailed and failed here. Brett Lee was missed for his runs as well as his reverse swing, and Andrew Symonds was missed even more. Australia's shortage of allrounders, their Achilles heel even in the glory years, meant that England simply had more players on their side. The Aussies had seven batsmen and four bowlers; England had nine batsmen and five bowlers. And unlike in the Warne-McGrath era, Australia's four bowlers didn't include anyone who could lop off a tail.
If England had marginally the better bowlers in the series, it was mainly because they had more of them. Just as Michael Vaughan did four years ago with Matthew Hoggard and Ashley Giles, Strauss could afford to forget about a bowler for a session or two. Collingwood, who could have been very handy at The Oval with his dustbowl cutters, was only given one over. It was the allrounders, and the five-fors, wot won it, as well as Strauss's own immense performance.
"Hardly anyone noticed the five-for count, which was 4-2 to England. And five-fors do more to win matches, for the simple reason that they take out half the opposition"
The victory was so slender, and clouded with qualifiers, that there has been little euphoria, and rightly so. Nobody thinks England are the finished article. Their most pressing need, as they go into a tougher series in South Africa, is to grow some more leaders.
If Strauss had been injured this summer, England would have been up the creek without a rudder. His vice-captain in the Caribbean last winter, implausibly, was Cook. Flintoff was a leader, but he has gone now. Collingwood is a solid senior pro, team man and ball-polisher, but even captaining the Twenty20 team seems to be beyond him. And he and Cook are playing for their places now, or should be. If a Martian had looked down on England at The Oval, they would have assumed the vice-captain was Jonathan Trott, who came in and played the Michael Clarke role to perfection. He was a senior player from day one; he anchored the second innings, grinding Australia down, while the allrounders had fun at the other end. Full marks to the selectors for picking him - but at the same time, no marks to them for allowing a bunch of less commanding figures to become automatic choices.
With Kevin Pietersen on the sidelines, the phrase "embarrassment of riches" has been used to describe the batting. Embarrassment, yes; riches, hardly. Only three batsmen have done enough to be inked in for the first Test in Centurion in December - Strauss, Pietersen and Trott. And in picking the squad, the selectors must give Strauss what Vaughan had: several people who can drive the car. If they won't pick the best batsman in the country, Mark Ramprakash - and they won't - the selectors should at least pick men who can think for themselves and run a show, like Robert Key. England started this Ashes series with the wrong opening pair, a brittle middle order, and an attack that was apt to be flaky; they ended it that way too. Somehow, in between, they managed to beat Australia. Three cheers - and no delusions.