Match Analysis

How a summer of ceaseless rivalry ended with honours even

Seven Anglo-Australian contests across two formats and four months ended with a trophy apiece and little to separate the sides

Melinda Farrell
It's a beautiful spring May day.
Australia are at Whitgift, in London's south, a school that is wealthy enough to have impeccable cricket facilities. A small band of journalists watch Marcus Stoinis smite Nathan Coulter-Nile over the distant green hedge that encloses the oval. They gather around Justin Langer, who jokes about how Steven Smith loves to bat more than anyone. He was shadow-batting on the battlefields of Gallipoli, he shadow-bats on the bus, he even shadow-bats in the shower. While you sleep he shadow-bats, so to speak.
England, meanwhile, are debating the final World Cup squad while warming up against Pakistan. The opinions flip like pennies: heads, Liam Dawson, tails, Joe Denly. Heads, Liam Plunkett, tails, David Willey. In the end it's heads and Liams. But still, Jofra Archer. Should he really be fast-tracked and would he disrupt some nebulous 'culture' for absolutely no reasonable reason at all?
Edwin Way Teal was an American naturalist and writer who died a year before Ian Botham performed his Ashes heroics in 1981. He probably knew nothing of cricket, but he understood the rhythms of nature.
"The world's favourite season is the spring," he wrote. "All things seem possible in May."
When the teams first met in earnest in the gloom of June at Lord's, England had suffered their first major wobble against Sri Lanka. Australia had lost to India, but that was no upset, not compared to England's defeat; the home side need to right the cart against a team that were still the title holders but, in reality, bore only a vague resemblance to the one that had lifted the trophy four years earlier.
Instead the wheels splintered and it was the familiar foes who delivered the critical blows. Aaron Finch and David Warner hammered Australia's foundations in place but it was Mitchell Starc who blew up England's chase in the most Mitchell Starc way; Ben Stokes the victim of that searing, swinging yorker that is Starc's trademark and talisman ball.
It all seemed so inevitable, so true to type. Australia was the team who just knew how to win at all the right moments, who knew how to win World Cups. England's recent success was fool's gold, and the doubters started whispering that, when it really mattered, they were destined to stuff it up royally.
Edgbaston's joust in July was to the death. England had been snuffed out in every knock-out match they had played in 27 years and their resolve to be aggressive this time around was being rigorously tested. By comparison, Australia's own campaign hadn't been overwhelmingly convincing, but the fears or hopes of the respective fans reflected their stereotypical national psyche; disposed to expect the worst on the one hand, and conditioned to assume the best on the other.
This time Finch and Warner were sent packing early and the recovery effort stymied by England's belligerent attack. And yet, and yet; there were still the hovering memories of recent batting collapses and the sterner spectre of history to overcome. They were blasted away with every smite of Jason Roy's innings. Australia's mounting desperation was never clearer than when Smith took the ball and Roy responded by clobbering it into the stands repeatedly. Many said couldn't remember a bigger six than the one that landed high in the new stand.
It was a complete obliteration. History be damned.
England, cart now righted and hurtling to Lord's, swept up a nation in febrile rapture, the height of summer witnessing arguably the greatest 50-over match ever played. The final was tied, New Zealand were both valiant and unlucky victims of a technicality while Ben Stokes turned water into celebratory champagne that showered over Eoin Morgan as he lifted the trophy. The first promise of the foretold glorious summer of English cricket has been fulfilled.
Australia, faded into the background amid all the hullaballoo, had already turned their focus from the cup to the urn.
The sound of August was the relentless booing. It had bubbled along during the World Cup, of course, but it erupted into a cacophony at Edgbaston as the self-appointed punishers of Warner, Smith and Cameron Bancroft did their worst. In Smith, it brought out the best. The hours of incessant shadow-batting in his hotel room metamorphosed into aeons of batting at the crease; the question of how to remove him became the riddle of the summer.
He was removed, but in a sobering way; bludgeoned by the pace and bounce of Archer at Lord's. Who knows if Archer would even have played if Jimmy Anderson hadn't pinged his precious calf in the first Test? If he hadn't, it would have deprived the fans of one of the spells of the rainy summer, the rain that may have deprived Stokes the chance of levelling the series. On such ifs and buts and beatings of butterfly wings we muse, for all its futility.
But let's play that game just a little longer; what if Smith had been fit for Headingley? Would that have robbed us of the summer's second marvel? The soundtrack changed and the boos were diminished by the roaring of Sunday worshippers in the Western Terrace as Stokes obliged them by dispatching the ball in their midst. The drama piled up, climax by climax, until that word lost its meaning. Test cricket is dying, we are often told; here it sucked the marrow out of life and toasted its excellent health.
Summer came and went but here we all were in Manchester, where Smith lay in wait. His previous absence had only made his presence loom ever greater. The riddle of the summer was not solved by autumn and if the legend of Stokes was etched in Yorkshire sandstone, Smith's was carved in the red brick of Lancashire.
Cricket thrives on numbers and stats, on comparisons and averages. In some ways, they are as futile as the butterfly wings; no cold figures can describe the genius of Smith's batting, while attempting to measure him against other greats is a duller pastime than simply watching his genius at work [although it makes for some pretty graphics! Ed].
The victory was enough for Australia; the Ashes retained for the first time in 18 years. They celebrated hard while the series was not yet won; such are the illogical vagaries surrounding the pursuit of this small urn.
All things may seem possible in May and yet who would have foretold some of scenes at The Oval in September? The sight of Warner, Stuart Broad's recurrent victim, trudging back to the dressing rooms with the worst returns for an opener in Test cricket history? Or the standing ovation, the acknowledgment of greatness, given to Smith's lowest innings of the series? Perhaps, most bizarrely, the singing of "Stand up if you love Jack Leach" that echoed around Vauxhall as the bespectacled tail-ender played a forward defensive shot?
The presentation was a peculiar affair: the Australians' celebrations were muted and carried out under Langer's disappointed glare, while England had won the match, drawn the series yet failed to capture the Ashes. Such vagaries mystify outsiders to the sport, yet are woven into the fabric of the game we love.
Four months on, and it comes to a close. England and Australia depart having earned a trophy apiece. They will set off for foreign shores, and plant the seeds for the next World Cup campaign, the next Ashes series, as the rhythms and cycles of cricket and life move on.
For, in the words of Edwin Way Teal, "For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad."

Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo