There was restoration in the faith of man. A full house at The Oval, warmed by the combination of September sun and England's sparkling cricket, roared its approval at the brilliant catch taken by Ben Stokes to finally dismiss Steven Smith for something less than exceptional. Twenty-three he made, hardly manna that called for a standing ovation but stand they did, to a man and woman, in appreciation of a batsman who has transcended not just the series but the accepted science of batting.
Six weeks ago when it all began, Smith was heckled and hollered to and from the crease - a man besieged by the reaction to a piece of sandpaper used for trickery and deceit. Since then he has done time and emerged from personal darkness into the brightest light. The figures are startling, and given that figures remain cricket's go-to reference, there is little point in arguing them. Fact: Smith is doing a Bradman. They are different in the aesthetic, of course - the Don all neat, tidy and detached; the Smudge a shambles, quirky in the extreme and with a heart that rests upon his sleeve. But the figures and the impact...
It is reasonable to say that the leading lights of Australian cricket outplayed those of England, and that the rest of the players pretty much balanced themselves out. Smith, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood nicked it from Stokes and Stuart Broad. Jofra Archer might have joined this elite group had he not gone missing on the first morning at Old Trafford; Rory Burns continues to improve so much, you would buy him at the current market rate.
Joe Root fought rather as Cook, Atherton, Boycott or Barrington would have done, finally coming to terms with the need to stay in. His instinct is more Dexter and Pietersen - to move and shake - but needs must, and his comments that England's performance at The Oval is a template for the future are more encouraging than his idea that you can freewheel through Test match cricket.
What of David Warner, the man who climbed out of the dressing room and disappeared? His aura is blown, as much by the circumstances of the past 18 months as by Broad. The in phrase is "owned", and by heaven, Broad has owned the pocket-once-rocket. How long will Warner put up with Test cricket's unerring habit of stripping a man to the bone? The franchised leagues and their pots of gold await his pleasure. The word on the street is that, in his mind at least, Warner is already further on up the road. At 33, and under such scrutiny, it will take something herculean to find the form of years past.
The drawn series was a good result, if one that favoured England a little. That the urn returns to Australia is a reflection of the fact that England dodged a few more bullets than their opponent and, in general, were not able to fire their own guns quite as straight as they should have done, especially on home soil.
Both sets of players will have nightmares about commanding positions lost - England reduced Australia to 122 for 8 in the first innings at Edgbaston and lost the match by a distance; Australia knocked over the old enemy for 67 at Headingley and the rest, as they say, is history. Both teams suffered the highest cost of injuries - James Anderson for the whole series and Smith for a game and half. And both teams have plenty of room for improvement.
To come to England and avoid defeat is something of a triumph in itself; ask India. In Justin Langer, Australia have a good man as coach and a good coach at this time for these men. He has an empathy with cricket that comes from deep within his soul but will need to watch for living the game too hard. The gift is to sleep at night, something that has challenged almost all Ashes captains of recent time and more coaches than may care to admit.
Langer does detail and passion. In the zeitgeist of modern team leadership, he takes control of everything off the field, leaving the captain free to focus his energy and attention on the period between the calls of play and stumps. He picked the week after Headingley as the most important of his coaching life and the subsequent win in Manchester as the most rewarding. His low profile tells us how little he cares about limelight and how much he cares for his players. Australia have the right man in the job.
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England will have an interim coach at the helm in New Zealand. Quite why is a mystery. It is a long time since Trevor Bayliss announced his post-Ashes departure, surely time enough to have the position sorted. Ashley Giles has said he wanted to steer clear of distractions during the World Cup and Ashes, but the team aren't choosing the coach.
The candidates most mentioned in dispatches are the usual suspects - Mickey Arthur, Ottis Gibson, Jason Gillespie and Tom Moody; those presently within the England set-up - Chris Silverwood, Graham Thorpe and Paul Collingwood; and a couple from left field - Mike Hesson and Andrew MacDonald. It is a good list, if light on English flavour.
Right now, England's need is specific and easy enough to identify. The crowds and public enthusiasm for Test match cricket remain hugely encouraging and therefore England should address the five-day game as persuasively as the short forms.
The coach needs a love of Test match cricket running through his veins; he must understand its intricacies, apply intelligence to its methods and common sense to its tactics.
In other words, Root needs an off-sider with a high-class cricket brain. In addition, he would greatly benefit from a man who unravels Test match batting, a man who has breathed the air of that battle and to whom he can turn to for comfort and the shared conversation of improvement. The best of Root is only around the corner but the far-reaching demands of captaincy weigh heavy upon him and compromise the inherently selfish business of making runs.
There is a man out there who fits this bill. His name is Gary Kirsten, the South African with an unmatched pedigree among the requirements for Root. Kirsten made a mountain of runs the hard way, has coached both India and South Africa in all formats, and earned universal respect for his serenity and wisdom. He is a kind man, well versed in modern ways and tough as they come. The great players of the age have benefited from his calm approach to the teachings of cricket - indeed Giles could call any one of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni for a reference to this understated but never undervalued man for all seasons.
Giles has made it clear that he wants a coach for all three formats and added that the workload would need careful management. This is done easily enough if the number two can step up for long periods. Silverwood is ideal for such a role.
Kirsten will take some persuading. It is not in the family's instinct to up sticks but the value of the South African rand against sterling can make for convincing bait; that and the challenge of setting England straight on the path to the first World Test Championship final at home in two years' time.
Apparently Kirsten has shown interest in the short-form part of the job. No, Gary, there is a bigger fish here for you. Modern travel and communication does not mean it is necessary to make wholesale changes to the location and lifestyle that best suits your family. It is a question of will. England must hope that Giles picks up a scent and that Kirsten is his man. Then the hunt is on.
Meantime the captains appeared cheerful last night and relieved. Both talked, in their different ways, of unfinished business and soon after, the players met over a beer or two in the England dressing room. It was a fine place to be, warriors at peace sharing the common ground of a game long loved and a contest that first caught the public imagination 137 years ago on this very same ground.
"In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. N.B.--The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia."
Long may this splendid diversion last.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK