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Australia leave UK with the mace and the urn, but no gold star

Winning Tests in England isn't easy. Australia won three and lost two out of six. But if "Ashes tend to define eras or legacies", Cummins' team fell short

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Pat Cummins and team-mates celebrate with the Urn after retaining the Ashes, England vs Australia, 5th men's Ashes Test, The Oval, 5th day, July 31, 2023

Pat Cummins and team-mates celebrate with the urn after retaining the Ashes  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Less than two months apart, Australia's two presentation ceremonies at The Oval were distinctly different. From the celebrations with the World Test Championship mace and players grinning from ear to ear, to a much more muted holding of a replica Ashes urn behind the "Series Drawn" banner as had been the case in 2019, some smiles looking a little less natural.
The first thing to say about Australia's two months in the UK is that it certainly hasn't been a failure. Winning Tests in England is a mighty tough ask. Pat Cummins' team managed three in a row. The first against India gave them the global crown and rubberstamped them as the best Test team in the world, the next two put them 2-0 up in the Ashes.
It would prove a vital cushion and not one to be brushed aside because of how events transpired. England did all they could to win three in a row, but Australia had put them in that win-or-bust position by taking the key moments at Lord's.

Lyon's vital hand, then huge absence

In Birmingham, the match was so nip-and-tuck that the final twist did not come until Nathan Lyon was dropped by Ben Stokes with 37 needed in the match-winning partnership with Cummins.
In the second Test, they were much the better team for large periods, finding a way to win without Lyon by luring England into the trap against the short ball and then holding their nerve against Stokes' onslaught following the controversial stumping of Jonny Bairstow.
But then the mood started to change. Over an extended period of three Tests, the injury to Lyon always shaped as a telling factor. Meanwhile, a shoulder injury to Ollie Pope, and Stokes' admission that he couldn't bowl, forced England into rebalancing the team. If those two events had not happened, would Chris Woakes have played at Headingley?
Either way, after Mitchell Marsh's stunning comeback century revived Australia in Leeds, they then had England 142 for 7 at lunch - still 121 behind. Mark Wood, having bowled rockets with the ball, smashed 24 off eight balls and Stokes got England just about level. Later that same day, Moeen Ali was handed the wickets of Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.
Australia were dealt a rough hand batting during a tough third-evening session after rain and were duly nipped out by England's quicks. They fought gallantly to defend 251 but there was too much resting on Cummins and Mitchell Starc. Although not quite as tight as Edgbaston, it was another match of narrow margins.
However, there was nothing tight about Old Trafford. Australia fluffed their lines with the bat in the first innings - something that would be a theme for the latter part of the series - with five of the top six making between 32 and 51. They were then obliterated by England's batting in a manner rarely seen of an Australian side. Then it rained for the best part of two days, although Labuschagne made an excellent century. That meant Australia couldn't lose the series.
"It's a bit of a strange one," Cummins had said. "As a group [we're] proud that we've retained the Ashes but it's off the back of not our greatest week. It feels like it's good to retain the Ashes, but we know we've got a fair bit of work to do for next week… we want to win it to make sure we win it outright."

Dropped catches cost Australia

And so to The Oval. For the first time on the tour, the coin fell in Cummins' favour and he inserted England on an overcast day. Then Australia dropped five catches. Most crucially was Alex Carey's off Harry Brook when he was on five. England reached 283 which, overall, left both sides reasonably happy. But Australia could only manage 12 more as the pattern of unconverted starts haunted them again. By the end of the series, five England batters averaged over 40 compared to just two (Usman Khawaja and Marsh) for Australia. Although Smith and Labuschagne managed a century apiece, England's overall success against them was significant.
England were back in the lead after one over of their second innings. Australia showed spirit to ensure it didn't entirely run away from them, but Bairstow and Joe Root built a big advantage. In the end, the target was 384. Then David Warner and Khawaja added 135 before the rain came. Warner's final Ashes innings ended against a new nemesis - Woakes from over the wicket for the fourth innings in a row - but even after Khawaja and Labuschagne had also fallen, Smith and Travis Head brought the requirement down to 120 with seven wickets in hand.
However, Moeen lured Head into a drive, Woakes kept finding the outside edge and, finally, Stuart Broad (from around the wicket, of course, to the left-handers) closed out the series and his career.

Away Ashes proves elusive again

It all means that there will be a generation of Australian cricketers added to those who won't have won an Ashes series in England. There is no shame in that, but this time it was there for the taking.
We know for certain that Warner won't be back. You can all but certainly add Smith and Khawaja to that, along with Starc (who was named Australia's Player of the Series, four years on from playing just once). Lyon has spoken about trying to keep going for another four years but it will be a big ask. Josh Hazlewood feels like an unlikely candidate at 32. Even at 30, Cummins could be a borderline case. They are all outstanding cricketers with plenty on their CVs, but an Ashes series win in England would have been an added gold star.
Four years is obviously a long time for any team. England are also entering a new era, not least in a bowling attack where the youngest in the last two matches has been 33. For Australia, their more immediate decisions will need to come later this year. They will start firm favourites in their home season against Pakistan and West Indies - although it is to be hoped that the Pakistan Way makes it to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney - but a transitional phase will begin, and how it's managed will be vital.
Warner's desired end date of January at the SCG is known. He is clinging on and may have done enough to get those three more Tests, although there is time for that to change by December. Regardless, Australia will hope that Khawaja has a couple more years in him to manage the changeover in opening batters.
While no one else has signalled imminent plans to retire (Smith, again, shut down rumours during the Oval Test) there will need to be an eye to the future. One aspect to consider is whether they can introduce a younger member to the pace attack, at least occasionally, to ensure there is some experience when a permanent gap appears. The other interesting dynamic that has now appeared is between Marsh and Cameron Green; the former could start the home summer ahead in the pecking order. They will hope to have Lyon back but will need to keep nurturing Todd Murphy.

Australia just short of their legacy

Australia began 2023 with a trifecta of huge Test challenges ahead of them: an away tour in India, the World Test Championship final, and this Ashes. India slipped away after a dramatic collapse in Delhi, but a few months later they were toppled for the mace. Heading into the England series, Cummins had reluctantly acknowledged "whether we like or not, Ashes tend to define eras or legacies".
In their last two away Ashes series, Australia have won four Test matches. That's as many as they had achieved in the previous four tours from 2005 to 2015. England rarely lose series on home soil, but Australia have now held the Ashes since late 2017.
As Cummins and Stokes came together at the end of an epic series - perhaps one of the greatest ever - the consensus was that 2-2 was the fair result. But there was also the feeling as the presentations went on, that one captain stood on The Oval outfield, at least in that moment, felt a little more ebullient than the other. And it wasn't the one holding the urn.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo