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Match Analysis

England's batters exude main-character energy to finish the Ashes on their own terms

There's a reason why Icarus is remembered, not the dreary dad who warned him about flying too close to the sun

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
29-Jul-2023
Moeen Ali pulls for four over deep square leg, England vs Australia, 5th men's Ashes Test, The Oval, 3rd day, July 29, 2023

Moeen Ali pulls for four over deep square leg, a shot that caused chaos on the boundary's edge  •  Getty Images

If one shot encapsulated the state of this Ashes series, it came in the 75th over of England's second innings on a heady evening in south London. Mitchell Starc, the leading-wicket taker on either side, charged in with three men out on the hook; he dug the ball in short at 88mph.
Moeen Ali, a 36-year-old with a groin strain who was retired from Test cricket two months ago, swivelled on a pull shot, fully extending his arms. Steven Smith ran around to his right, sprawling at full stretch as he attempted to flick the ball back into play on the bounce. He couldn't reach it, and thudded into the LED advertising boards as he landed.
Smith briefly lay prone, resting his arm on the hoardings as the crowd revelled in another England boundary, their 48th of the day. It had taken England six balls to wipe out the 12-run lead that Australia had painstakingly accumulated across 103.1 overs; now, they were 357 ahead.
England cannot win this series but that might now be incidental. They have scored at 4.74 runs per over, averaged 36.58 runs per wicket, and most importantly, have been utterly compelling to watch. "Can Bazball really work against Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood?" They have unequivocally won the argument.
This was England at their best, forcing the field back with early aggression before cruising along with singles to boundary-riders as though they were batting in the middle overs of an ODI. Six of their batters will end the series with at least 300 runs at an average above 35; Ben Stokes' strike rate of 64.69 was the slowest among them.
Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett led the charge, their final partnership tally of 79 in 17 overs reflecting a slow-down once Cummins finally pushed the field back. England have not always found batting in the third innings easy in the last 14 months, without the lucidity of a run-chase; as if to dispel any doubts, Crawley crashed the first ball of the day through cover for four.
But it was Joe Root who best personified England's dominance, settling into fifth gear after a jittery start. His best shot, a crisp whip through midwicket while wandering down the pitch against Hazlewood, was soon followed by his most outlandish: a now-characteristic reverse-scoop for six over the slips off Mitchell Marsh.
It is a mark of Root's transcendence in this series that his run aggregate - 412 at 51.50 - feels lower than it should, given the ease with which he has scored whenever he has been set. Root mastered the art of middle-overs batting during the 2015-19 World Cup cycle, and Cummins has generally posted 50-over fields as soon as Root has reached 20.
Twice in his last three innings, he has been denied a century after being bowled by balls that have hardly got off the pitch after bouncing: the first from Hazlewood in Manchester, the second from Todd Murphy at The Oval on Saturday. Yet by the time he walked off with England 320 ahead, he had reasserted his status among the world's elite batters.
There has been plenty of scoffing about England's perceived superiority complex in recent days - much of it justified. The inescapable facts are that they are 2-1 down, having let multiple chances slip in both of their defeats, and cannot now regain the urn until 2025-26.
Yet it has become increasingly clear as this series has worn on that Australia are rattled by England's approach. Since arriving in the UK they have thrashed India to become World Test Champions, and gone 2-0 up in the series; barring an improbable run-chase, they will fly home next week ruing a missed opportunity to secure their legacy.
And yes, there have been times in this series when England's batters have flown too close to the sun. If they had the chance again, they would surely have reined themselves in just a fraction during the third innings at Edgbaston, and similarly on the third morning at Lord's, when they lost 6 for 47 while repeatedly taking on the short ball on a sluggish surface.
But there's a reason you remember the name of Icarus, and not the dreary dad who warned him about the consequences. Two years ago, England were a drab, dull side who were best to follow via wicket notifications and social media low-lights; now, a similar group of players are arrestingly watchable, and their supporters want to watch every ball.
Two days of rain in Manchester denied this series the finale it deserved, and the type of showpiece event that cricket in England so desperately cherishes as it battles for mainstream attention amid constant existential crises. Even so, for all the hand-wringing about the schedule, the Ashes has been the main event of the sporting summer.
Australia have played some brilliant cricket, and nobody is disputing their right to return home having retained the urn. But England have undeniably been the protagonists of this series, exuding relentless main-character energy; it was only fitting that Stuart Broad, the hero of this drama, would steal the show late on Saturday evening.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98