It was 6.12pm on a pleasant Manchester Sunday evening. Australian cricketers, each a signpost to the past in their baggy-green caps and green-and-gold trimmed jumpers, ran at one other as if demented. They hugged and squeezed and joshed - young and old… ish, big men and small, bearded and clean-shaven. The Ashes had been retained.

Australia first beat England 137 years ago, at The Oval. Fred Spofforth, the Demon they called him, took 14 wickets in the match and the Sporting Times of London printed its famous RIP mock obituary. "English cricket had died" it said, "the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia." So the story began: a story that has since has become an ever-present fascination in our lives.

The house at Old Trafford on Sunday was full. Songs of hope were sung, and while first Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler and then Craig Overton and Jack Leach held firm, the unlikely appeared possible. The same had been said during that Sunday afternoon two weeks ago in Leeds. But there was to be nothing so outrageous this time, no miracle of Manchester to follow the legend of Leeds.

In the end, one team was better than the other. For all the talk of an even match-up, Steve Smith, with a little help from his friends Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, had too much game.

Forget for a minute the idiosyncrasies, for at the core of Smith's method is remarkable hand-eye coordination, a desire for runs that is set deep in his soul, and unmatched concentration. Smith stood between England and the Ashes. It is really as simple as that.

England lost the game on the first two days, when the wind, rain and cold threw the bowlers off course. Stuart Broad was an honourable exception but the others went missing. Grim as the weather was, it cannot be an excuse, for the Ashes were on the line. If such a challenge failed to transcend the conditions, only the players can be blamed.

England's various tactics went the way of the wind and Joe Root's exasperated expressions told us a tale of woe. Smith worked the ball around the leg side to his will and occasionally smashed through the off side for a bit of fun. England tried straight, wide, short, full, over and round, the rough, the ready, the steady and the hopeful. None made an impression. The fielders appeared as pawns in his game, frequently outmanoeuvred and often left floundering. When Leach had Smith caught by Ben Stokes at slip for 118, he had overstepped the crease - an unforgivable sin. By the time Tim Paine declared with 497 on the board, the tea leaves had been read and the Australians were playing with vigour and belief.

For the most part of the series - though not the first three days at Edgbaston, it should be noted - Australia have played the better cricket. Tighter with the ball, and therefore more grudging, powerful and organised through their actions and relentless in the examination of the batsman's danger area around off stump, the seam-bowling trio has made life ongoingly uncomfortable for England's batsmen. Only Stokes mastered them, at Headingley of course, though Rory Burns and Root held control at various times, and Joe Denly has fought for his runs in a way that he might not have imagined. The Cummins-Hazlewood combination is as good as any and better than most, evoking comparisons with Lindwall and Miller, Lillee and Thomson, Hughes and McDermott, McGrath and Lee/Gillespie.

To make the job more straightforward, Cummins brushed aside Burns and Root on Saturday evening. That ball to Root was a thing of devilish beauty, so perfectly was it delivered and pitched, so conclusive was its result. Of all modern fast bowlers, he is the one who fires most at the stumps, thus committing batsmen to play at balls they know will hurt, and who uses the bouncer to best effect. Cummins is some specimen - tall and powerfully built but still athletic in a way that allows his action to flow through the long spells of enforcement that invariably create opportunities for his team.

Hazlewood was at his best in the first innings, when a beautiful rhythm made for greater pace than usual. Four years ago in the Ashes, he bowled too short but now, lesson learnt, he found the value in a fuller length that saw the ball carry through to Paine at chest height. He hits the seam with a regularity once the property of Glenn McGrath, and during this series, similarities between the two have been clear. Hazlewood grew up watching the great man, who too was a boy from the country in New South Wales. Both made their way to Sydney in search of fame and fortune - or wickets anyway.

It was Hazlewood who struck the defining blow, and watched over by a smiling, applauding McGrath, then stood, arms aloft and triumphant, as his team-mates ran to embrace him. Such moments live forever and whatever else these men achieve during their careers, this will be among the sweetest.

The one surprise of late in this high-octane talented attack has been Nathan Lyon, he of 359 Test wickets and the moniker GOAT, as in greatest of all time - by which his mates mean greatest Aussie offspinner of them all. Word on the street is that the missed run-out at Headingley, the moment he dropped the ball with Leach treading water half way down the pitch, is playing tricks with his mind. Maybe, but the fact remains that since Edgbaston, where he picked up nine wickets, he has been off colour. There has been little dip on the ball or drift away from the bat, and a reluctance to bowl round the wicket to the right-handers, gifts and tactics that have served him so well previously. The key to an offspinner's success is revs and flight, alongside the use of angles and variation. Without them, the predictability of the ball's path makes the playing of it quite manageable. It is not that Lyon has bowled poorly, more that he has created less of an impression, as if a bit of him is missing.

So it was a mystery watching the GOAT until we heard of the injury to his spinning finger, and then, in this match at least, it made some sense. More generally, Lyon was one of the players most affected by the trauma of the ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town last year. Beneath the gaze of the world one man may take more time than another to gather and fully reboot.

Cape Town struck down Australian cricket in many different ways. The journey back to good health has not been easy. The way has been led by the coach, Justin Langer, and the captain, Paine, each as sound as the other and devoted to the cause. When England lost the ninth wicket at Headingley and Leach made his way to the crease, Paine was briefly overcome by emotion, so much did victory mean. Within moments he snapped out it, only to be denied by the Stokes tour de force. Now he can let it wash over him.

Langer thinks deep, works long and lives it hard. His line that he felt the Ashes had been stolen by England at Headingley told us about the importance of this campaign to him. The players and coaching staff have thought of little else since the end of the home summer of cricket. The World Cup mattered; the Ashes were paramount.

They will know, every bit as well as Root knows, that without Smith this narrative would be very different. Marnus Labuschagne has shown immense character but the rest of the batting has been suspect, to say the least.

The same must be said of England, which makes for an unpredictable ride day upon day. Too many talented batsmen are drifting, their moderate averages proof of a deficiency. The theories as to why are everywhere, but in the end you either put the highest price on your wicket or you don't. Those less talented - ironically, those at the top of the order - fight for their lives. It is an odd state of affairs that needs correction.

No doubt, the World Cup took a lot out of Root and his World Cup winners. Having failed to regain the Ashes, the captain now has to answer uncomfortable questions, and in reply, prefers to stay loyal to his men. He is instinctively a kind man, and right now he should be left to the business of levelling the series, a task that would be made easier were he to bat in his best position, at No. 4.

Those six intoxicating World Cup weeks served next to no purpose in preparation for the Ashes, but the glory of them, and of the denouement in particular, will live on to inspire the young. Across the seas, the retention of the Ashes will do the same for hundreds of thousands of happy Australians who woke this morning to the news of their heroes. Right now, down under, there is much to celebrate.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK