Tour review

England v Australia, 2015

Jonathan Liew

The England players get together and celebrate their Ashes win, England v Australia, 5th Investec Ashes Test, The Oval, 4th day, August 23, 2015
England players celebrate their Ashes win © Getty Images
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Test matches (5): England 3, Australia 2 Twenty20 international (1): England 1, Australia 0 One-day internationals (5): England 2, Australia 3 BSE, or mad cow disease, emerged in the 1980s. Essentially, it was caused by greed and cannibalism. To save money, cattle were fed meat and bone meal produced from the remains of sheep or cows, disregarding the fact that for thousands of years they had quite happily been vegetarian. Mutation spread through the food chain like a nasty rumour. By the time the disease was under control, almost four and a half million cattle had been slaughtered - and the entire British beef industry was close to ruin. About 180 people in the UK have died of variant CJD, the human form of the disease.

The 2015 Ashes series killed no humans and no cows. Its effect on the cricket industry, however, was harder to ascertain. More simply put, this third Ashes encounter in the space of two years was the point at which the long and venerable rivalry between England and Australia started to cannibalise itself, mutate, and go thoroughly mad as a result.

It was a series that defied predictions, statistics, narrative, and at times appeared to defy even gravity. England took an emphatic lead at Cardiff, surrendered it just as emphatically at Lord's, lurched back with resounding victories at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge inside three days, then collapsed horribly in the dead rubber at The Oval. Australia took more wickets, scored more runs, made more centuries - and lost.

There were contradictions: it was a close series that was never really very close, all five matches being won by thumping margins; and it was a series short on quality, yet brimming with entertainment. The 3-2 scoreline was also misleading. In truth, England's fingers were clasped on the urn from the first morning at Trent Bridge, when Australia were bowled out for 60 in a melee of swinging balls and groping bats.

None of the matches required a fifth day, unique since Ashes Tests were fixed at their current extent in 1948. Indeed, it was only the second Ashes series in England since 1896 not to feature a draw. The whole thing was over in 7,920 balls, equivalent to less than 15 full days' play, the sixth-shortest five- match series in Test history. The inability of both teams to alter the course of a match once it had been set was so fundamental that, in every game bar the first, the result could safely be predicted by stumps on day two.

All of which, admittedly, obscures the sheer drama. And drama, rather than suspense or mystery, is the operative word. You may have seen dozens of James Bond films, you may know exactly how they are going to end, but there remains a thrill in watching each unfold. So it was here. Australia's capitulation in Nottingham must take its place as one of the most stunning passages of play the sport has seen. One by one the Australian batsmen strode out; one by one they strode back, coaxed to perdition by the spell of Stuart Broad's life (eight for 15), and the catch of Ben Stokes's, diving full length to his right at fifth slip to pluck Adam Voges' thick edge out of thin air. The look on Broad's face - eyes wide as satellite dishes, hands over mouth in shock - was one of the defining emblems of a series that frequently made no sense whatsoever. Oscar- winning stuff? Perhaps not. But box-office dynamite it certainly was.

Nor should the series' essential silliness detract from what was an impressive triumph by England. Bookmakers had them at about 4-1, which felt about right. For all the vim and jollity of the New Zealand visit, this was still a team unaccustomed to winning: they had prevailed in just one of their previous five series and, since ascending to the top of the world rankings in 2011, had lost as many Tests (16) as they had won. Throw in a new coach in Trevor Bayliss, and a new director of cricket in Andrew Strauss, and most observers reckoned the Ashes had come a little too soon for this new-model England. Indeed, the ECB's stated objective on giving Strauss the job was to win back the Ashes in 2019 - suggesting that 2015 was, if not a write-off, then at least a free swing.

Perhaps all this emboldened the Australians, still flush with happy memories of the whitewash in 2013-14, more than was wise. Steve Smith had betrayed their mood in an interview in April. "If we continue the same way we've played over the last 12-18 months," he said, "I don't think they'll come close to us, to be honest."

And, by the end of the summer, Australia had lost more than the Ashes. They had lost a strike bowler in Ryan Harris, whose injury-forced retirement just before the First Test unsettled Australia more than was apparent at the time. They had lost a wicketkeeper and senior counsel in Brad Haddin, a stalwart all-rounder in Shane Watson, a selfless opening batsman in Chris Rogers. They had lost a little of the irresistible aura of Mitchell Johnson, who began the tour as Australia's most feared weapon, and finished it with an average of almost 35 and the jeers of partisan crowds ringing in his ears again.

Most significantly of all, they had lost their leader. During his time in charge, Michael Clarke had conquered chronic injury, press intrusion, public ridicule, personal grief and ignominious defeat. But, for a captain who had always sought to lead by example, his alarming lack of runs could be ignored no longer. Having failed to play his way back into form in almost ideal circumstances at Lord's - coming in on a belting pitch against a weary attack at 362 for two - Clarke ended up looking more liability than asset, a walking wicket with only the most cursory awareness of his off stump. "They've got 11, and we've only got ten," he said with brutal frankness after Australia's defeat at Edgbaston.

Surrender of the Ashes at Trent Bridge gave way to the inevitable. Clarke announced that the Oval Test would be his last before retiring. There, England's players granted him a guard of honour, and a capacity crowd offered a fittingly warm reception. Clarke drank in the applause, before folding into the embrace of his tearful wife. He looked proud, exhausted, relieved, distraught - all at the same time. The things sport does to a man.

Just as surprising as Clarke's decline and fall was the renaissance of his opposite number. Alastair Cook entered the summer a tarnished brand: his one-day international career extinguished, his captaincy derided, his repu- tation on the line. He left it as one of only three Englishmen - along with W. G. Grace and Mike Brearley - to have skippered more than one home Ashes-winning team (and the last time England had beaten Australia four times in a row at home was in the 19th century). Not only had he been a better batsman than Clarke, he had been a better captain. It was a remarkable trans- formation for a player who a year earlier had considered giving up the job, only to be talked round by his wife.

How had Cook done it? Batting is a function of practice and talent; captaincy, on the other hand, is largely a function of personality. There is no such thing as a leadership net session. The very stubbornness that made Cook a wonderful batsman had been hampering him as a leader. There was a certain coldness with the media, a resistance to advice, an innate conservatism that cost England Test victories. And yet it was to Cook's great credit that he not only identified these flaws, but changed his approach. The Cook of old would never have installed Joe Root under the helmet as an unconventional short third slip, as he did at Cardiff; nor would he have cheekily declared at 391 for nine, as he did at Trent Bridge. This was the summer when Cook discovered his sense of fun, and at times it was a joy to watch.

Root, his first lieutenant, had a defining series. His century at Trent Bridge lifted him - briefly - to No. 1 in the world rankings. No other England batsman reached three figures; Root did it twice, becoming the first Englishman to score three Ashes centuries before the age of 25. His skill was in quickening the match to his tempo, making bowlers play to his tune, punching through the off side with impeccable timing, gliding through leg with faultless footwork. In the field he was effervescent and ever-present, and his off-breaks chipped in with four wickets.

Root's were an increasingly safe pair of hands, whatever they were doing. He held eight catches in the series - among fielders he was second only to his captain's nine, including three in the first innings at Trent Bridge. That was where England's close fielding, honed during a four-day pre-Ashes trip to Spain - reached its apogee. The now-familiar cries of "Roooooot", which had taken on the hue of a populace acclaiming their new king, were heard throughout the summer.

Shamelessly mining their home advantage, Cook and a number of England players used media interviews to remind groundsmen of their responsibility to prepare "traditional English wickets". In practice, this meant slow, seaming surfaces: slow enough to absorb the missiles of Johnson and Mitchell Starc, probably the two fastest bowlers in the series, but with enough lateral movement to reward England's battery of technical seamers.

It worked a treat at Cardiff, where Root's flamboyant, insouciant 134 paved the way for a big total and a big victory, banishing any lingering hangover from 2013-14. Conversely, Lord's - where you suspect the groundsman Mick Hunt would rather water his pitch with human tears than let somebody tell him how to prepare it - was more benign. After Smith's brilliant double-century had ground England into the dirt, Johnson's stiletto finished them off.

Now it was England's turn to moan about the pitch, a grumble that would become a motif. Clarke even devoted a portion of his retirement press conference to complaining about the standard of the surfaces, which he blamed for the string of early finishes: "Fans of the game deserve to see a really good contest for five days."

He was right, but he should probably have started by pointing the finger at his batsmen. At Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, Australia displayed an inadequacy against the moving ball, essentially losing the Ashes in those two first innings. The top three all had decent series - Smith, Rogers and David Warner were among its four highest scorers - but too often the middle order were ripped out. Smith's summer proved symptomatic: on fire in London, where he averaged 138, he was extinguished elsewhere, averaging 15. Voges, one of the most experienced Australians in English conditions, struggled in his second Test series, and was lucky to see it out.

The departing Michael Clarke is congratulated by Alastair Cook, England v Australia, 5th Investec Ashes Test, The Oval, 4th day, August 23, 2015
The departing Michael Clarke is congratulated by Alastair Cook © PA Photos

These were not the Australian selectors' finest few months. On purely cricketing grounds, there was a strong case for replacing the fading Haddin with another New South Wales keeper-batsman, Peter Nevill. Haddin was 37. His form was going south. He had kept poorly at Cardiff, where his second- ball drop of Root proved critical. But the ham-fisted management of what was essentially the termination of a man's international career had the effect of splitting and distracting the team, at the very moment they needed to be focused and united.

Haddin had asked to be excused from the Second Test at Lord's to attend to his daughter, Mia, who was in a London hospital. That was fine, and Nevill made a strong debut. The trouble started at Edgbaston, where Nevill was retained, but the handling of Haddin's demise caused resentment among his many allies. Ricky Ponting wrote an angry column in The Australian, describing him as the "heart and soul of the cricket team", and claiming he had been penalised for putting his family first, a line the board claimed to support.

Dropping Watson was an easier decision. A long-standing leg-before candidate with a reputation for wasting reviews, Watson scarcely helped his cause by falling twice in precisely that fashion at Cardiff. A ready-made, in-form replacement was available in all-rounder Mitchell Marsh, who proved surprisingly potent with the ball on pitches that rewarded discipline more than raw speed. Yet, after just two matches, he was misguidedly discarded in favour of his brother Shaun, before being reinstated at The Oval. It no longer looked as if Australia knew what they were doing.

By contrast, England benefited from continuity of selection. They made only three changes over the course of the series - two of them enforced, after Mark Wood exacerbated an ankle injury at Lord's, and James Anderson strained his side at Edgbaston. It allowed them to hone their bowling plans and develop rhythm. There were echoes of 2005 as a five-pronged attack - including two genuine all-rounders in Stokes and Moeen Ali - hunted as a pack. Stokes was hit and miss, starting well with the bat before scoring just 20 runs, including three ducks, in his last five innings, and taking more than half his wickets in a single innings at Nottingham. Ali, conversely, found the cartoon-slugfest tenor of the cricket to his liking, gleefully counter-punching from No. 8 and winkling out valuable wickets, including Warner four times.

Broad, with whom Ali added at least 50 in each of England's three wins, enjoyed another sparkling Ashes. His remarkable Trent Bridge haul was the centrepiece of a series in which he claimed 21 wickets at just under 21, and made a legitimate grab for greatness. At Edgbaston, Steven Finn returned after two years in the Test wilderness, removed Smith in his first over, and claimed six in the second innings - part of an unprecedented sequence, starting with Anderson at Edgbaston and ending with Stokes at Trent Bridge, in which four different England seamers picked up a six-for or better. Wood looked convincing rather than impressive, while Jonny Bairstow - replacing the struggling Gary Ballance at Birmingham, the only unenforced change - looked impressive rather than convincing.

Adam Lyth, meanwhile, neither impressed nor convinced anyone as Cook's sixth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss less than three years earlier. While he made double figures six times - more than Smith - he appeared to lack a cogent innings-building strategy. Not since Graham Gooch in 1981 had an England opener batting at least seven times averaged lower than Lyth's 12.77. Jos Buttler was England's other major failure, looking in white a pale shadow of the assassin he had so often been in blue, and four times falling cheaply to the off-breaks of Nathan Lyon.

By the time the circus reached The Oval, the fate of the urn already decided, ennui had set in. The subplots had been exhausted, the audience sated, and the protagonists were now weary of each other. Even the Johnson taunts felt stale. Australia rolled over a half-interested England by an innings. It was time for a break. Everyone agreed that the next Ashes series, in 2017-18, seemed pleasantly distant.

Such was the anticlimax to the Test series, in fact, that the subsequent one- day matches felt almost lustrous by comparison. In the event, they followed a similarly madcap pattern. Australia imploded in a pulsating Twenty20 match at Cardiff, losing six wickets in the final seven overs, before coasting to a 2-0 lead in the one-day series, largely on the back of a resurgent Pat Cummins. England gaily counter-attacked in Manchester and Leeds to set up a decider, whereupon they crumbled. And so Australia, finally, were able to leave these shores with something more than bad memories and dirty laundry.

You might describe it as a series of its time - cricket for the attention- deprived, 140-character age. And yet there was something queerly retro about it all. Three-day Tests? Pitifully low totals? England v Australia playing each other every few months to the exclusion of almost everything else? Never mind 2015: this could have been 1895. Plus c ̧a change, plus c'est la meˆme chose. And, in a summer defined by flux and craziness, that may well have been the maddest notion of the lot.

Match reports for

Tour Match: Kent v Australians at Canterbury, Jun 25-28, 2015
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Tour Match: Essex v Australians at Chelmsford, Jul 1-4, 2015
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1st Investec Test: England v Australia at Cardiff, Jul 8-11, 2015
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2nd Investec Test: England v Australia at Lord's, Jul 16-19, 2015
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Tour Match: Derbyshire v Australians at Derby, Jul 23-25, 2015
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3rd Investec Test: England v Australia at Birmingham, Jul 29-31, 2015
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4th Investec Test: England v Australia at Nottingham, Aug 6-8, 2015
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Tour Match: Northamptonshire v Australians at Northampton, Aug 14-16, 2015
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5th Investec Test: England v Australia at The Oval, Aug 20-23, 2015
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Only ODI: Ireland v Australia at Belfast, Aug 27, 2015
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Only T20I: England v Australia at Cardiff, Aug 31, 2015
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1st ODI: England v Australia at Southampton, Sep 3, 2015
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2nd ODI: England v Australia at Lord's, Sep 5, 2015
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3rd ODI: England v Australia at Manchester, Sep 8, 2015
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4th ODI: England v Australia at Leeds, Sep 11, 2015
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5th ODI: England v Australia at Manchester, Sep 13, 2015
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