Tour review

England v Australia, 2013

Alastair Cook kisses the urn, England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 5th day, August 25, 2013
Alastair Cook kisses the Ashes urn after England beat Australia 3-0 © Getty Images
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Test matches (5): England 3, Australia 0
Twenty20 internationals (2): England 1, Australia 1
One-day internationals (5): England 1, Australia 2

Ashes series are notorious for defying forecasts. But the 2013 edition made the pundits look pretty good: the eventual margin of 3-0 to England - the first time Australia had failed to win a Test in an Ashes series since 1977 - would probably have been the median prophecy. Even Australians seemed unsurprised, though they were hopeful of better during the imminent sequel Down Under.

England were actually less emphatic than they had been while winning 3-1 in 2010-11. In particular, their top three of Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Jonathan Trott had a far poorer time than Andrew Strauss, Cook and Trott had enjoyed on that tour of Australia, totalling 609 runs fewer; Cook alone regressed by 489, and his average by almost exactly 100. Not once did England make 400; on four occasions they trailed on first innings. Yet they played with the maturity and composure of a side that knew not only how to win, but also how not to lose. Australian grumbles that, given a fairer wind, the series could have turned out differently rather missed the point.

A succession of dry, hard and slow pitches most obviously benefited Graeme Swann, who was the leading wicket-taker on either side, with 26 - his most prolific Test series. But they also made for some dry, hard and slow batting, of which Man of the Series Ian Bell became the foremost exponent. Time and again, more often than not following the fall of three early wickets, he planted himself elegantly in Australia's path; he faced nearly 400 deliveries from their best two bowlers, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, and fell to them only three times; and he lost nothing by comparison with the vivid Kevin Pietersen. Bell would have been disappointed only that none of his three centuries became what batting coach Graham Gooch calls a "daddy hundred". In fact, the average of England's five centuries - Root and Pietersen completed the hand - was 124, compared to nearly twice that in 2010-11.

Overall, the series offered confirmation of the old verity about bowlers winning matches. Each of England's victories was underwritten by a great solo performance: by James Anderson at Trent Bridge (ten for 158), by Swann at Lord's (nine for 122), and by Stuart Broad, after a quiet series, at Chester-le-Street (11 for 121). England were occasionally dilatory, and even cynical: Broad is a bigger time-waster than Angry Birds.

But they did not only bore Australia into submission, as some liked to imagine: when they "spiced it up", as Cook put it, they showed bristling purpose and conviction. It scarcely mattered that Anderson faded after Nottingham, adding only 12 wickets in four Tests at 41 apiece, and returning the worst innings analysis of his career, on home turf in Manchester. Someone always stepped in when it mattered.

Michael Clarke's Australians had good days, and even strung them together. Thanks in part to the captain's gutsy 187 at Old Trafford, they had much the better of a Third Test ultimately ruined by rain, and were ahead after three days at The Oval when the clouds opened again. In both cases, however, they had enjoyed the favour of the toss and first innings. And where England were skilled at soaking up pressure, Australia tended to brittleness: their collapses almost registered on the Richter Scale. The tight moments, including the last day thriller at Trent Bridge and the fourth evening in Durham, were claimed by England.

Australia's on-field disarray was the counterpart to off-field incohesion, a carry-over from their ruinous visit to India, where coach Mickey Arthur had suspended four players in what became known, in the modern media vernacular, as "Homeworkgate". Certainly, the summer had begun in confusing circumstances, when two Australian teams arrived: a squad for the Champions Trophy, led in name only by Clarke; and an Australia A party led by Brad Haddin. Clarke, in discomfort from his volatile back, was little in evidence and missed the one-day tournament, leaving nobody in obvious charge: there was lots of management but no leadership. Australian players out drinking after their Champions Trophy defeat by England were then witness to a bizarre incident: in Birmingham's Walkabout, an Australian-themed bar where a handful of England players had also gathered, David Warner threw a punch at Root, and was drawn away by team-mate Clint McKay.

The story remained a well-kept secret for three days, when Cricket Australia abruptly issued a statement explaining that Warner had been reported for "unbecoming behaviour" after being "allegedly involved in a physical altercation with an England player". The ECB upped the ante, saying Warner had "initiated an unprovoked physical attack" and apologised. And when Clarke's locum George Bailey described the episode as "a very minor incident" which had been dealt with in-house, that house was revealed to be in a different street from the one belonging to CA's chief executive, James Sutherland.

"David Warner has done a despicable thing," he said. "I don't care what explanations people might want to put up. There is no place for violence in society, and there is no place for Australian cricketers to be finding themselves in that position."

The gulf between the team and officialdom was emphasised when Warner was suspended until the First Test, which - being immediately followed by the Second - essentially ruled him out until the Third. He was briefly exiled to Australia A's trip to southern Africa; by the time he returned, he was the tour's official pantomime villain, ripe for the booing by English crowds. Meanwhile, Arthur gave an interview in which he played down the incident: "We are going to get a bit of ill-judgment, and some players are going to learn the hard way, but those are our best players. We've got to back them." A few days later, with Australia about to play a warm-up match at Taunton, Arthur was called in to meet Sutherland and Pat Howard, CA's general manager of team performance - and emerged 15 minutes later without a job. With just 16 days until the First Test, his replacement was Australia A's coach Darren Lehmann; in another change, Clarke stood down from the selection panel.

The popular Lehmann was welcomed, and enjoyed a honeymoon period, shrewdly courting the electronic media. But CA's left hand continued to experience difficulty in ascertaining the movement of their right. Nobody, for example, seemed to have tidied up after Arthur's departure, so that claims he made in a suit for wrongful dismissal - later settled confidentially - became public. These included the damaging comment that he had been "the meat in the sandwich" between Clarke and Shane Watson, and that Clarke had referred to Watson as a "cancer" - which resonated with remarks made by Howard a few months earlier that he was a team player "sometimes".

Warne became a media apologist for his confrere

Public-affairs professionals produced a constant stream of announcements and clarifications, some of them adding to the confusion. During the Lord's Test, they were simultaneously issuing statements distancing Warner from tweets by his brother Steve about Watson ("Fucking selfish Watson sooner your out if the side you great pretender the better") and Arthur ("Good on Mickey Arthur finally letting the truth be known and proving he was just an escape goat #awesomebloke #Gentleman"); and themselves from their own tweet condemning a decision for a low catch ("That decision sucked ass #bullshit"). This "inappropriate" last one, whose author never came to light, was explained away as not emanating "from CA's official Twitter presence at Lord's".

England and the ECB, themselves entangled by modern communications a year earlier during the Pietersen affair, kept their counsel, staving off their only media misfire until the series was over, when some puerile post-match behaviour by the players at The Oval showed an uncharacteristic lack of judgment. For Australians in need of light relief, England's late-night urination out in the middle was a welcome distraction; for England, it echoed an incident earlier in the month, when Monty Panesar - who was part of the squad for Old Trafford, but got no closer to a final XI - peed on bouncers at a Brighton nightclub. It was almost as silly as the boos which greeted Clarke at the end of the Oval Test, when the umpires aborted England's run-chase because of the light, yet locals blamed Clarke for time-wasting.

In placing an imprint on his charges, meanwhile, Lehmann seemed uncommonly intent on experimentation: only once, almost 30 years previously, had Australia chosen as many as 17 men in an away series. At Trent Bridge, only two batsmen were in the positions they had filled in their previous Test, at Delhi in March: at No. 5 Steve Smith, himself a late addition to the party as cover for Clarke, and James Pattinson at No. 10. By the end of the series, Australia had used three different opening combinations, and four different players at No. 3, none of whom was Phil Hughes, who had occupied the role in Australia's two preceding series. The captain batted at No. 4 on six occasions, and at No. 5 on four. Four different batsmen (plus a nightwatchman) occupied No. 6. Again, by contrast, England altered their top six once - and only after winning the series.

Lehmann's first hunch paid off handsomely, if not predictably, when the teenage left-arm spinner Ashton Agar was included at Nottingham, after Nathan Lyon had played 20 of Australia's previous 24 Tests. Coming in last at 117 for nine, Agar played the innings of his young life, a free-spirited 98 from 101 balls, and with Hughes added a tenth-wicket record of 163. By Old Trafford, however, both Agar and Hughes were gone - as was Ed Cowan, for 18 months a fixture at the top of the order, but now displaced by an abortive experiment to turn Watson back into an opener.

Australia could argue progress was made, The Oval proving their best day of all (though even there they came within a few overs of a 4-0 defeat following Clarke's slightly desperate last-day declaration). But they were lucky: Watson, whose front-foot travails had risked turning him into a laughing stock, made his first Test hundred in three years, batting at No. 3 because it was the only slot in the order left after Australia had selected a fifth bowler; and Smith hit a maiden Test century, having survived only because of his good fortune with umpiring technology at Old Trafford.

One wondered at times whether Australia entered the series not to win it, but to work out their best XI. Arthur hinted at this in an interview late in the series: "We wanted to try and push England really hard in England, but we wanted to win in Australia." But Clarke, of whom so much had been expected, rather waned as Lehmann waxed. Only at Old Trafford, after enduring an anxious first hour, did he make runs in the quantities he would have liked. He was troubled by the bounce of Broad - who dismissed him five times - cramped in his cross-bat shots, and limited in his freedom of evasive action.

In the field, he was, as ever, an impressively intuitive leader, although - as his predecessor Ricky Ponting observed - "funky" field placing is part and parcel of captaining a middling team and needing to make things happen. Off the field, Clarke seemed more than usually burdened, even though his workload had in theory been lightened. He referred constantly in press conferences to the fact that he was no longer a selector, as if trying to make a point that was not completely clear; his shows of solidarity with Watson had a cloying quality; and he was closest of all, in outward appearance at least, to Shane Warne, who became something of a media apologist for his confrere, in addition to acting as a consultant to Lehmann and duty selector Rod Marsh.

The chief success of the batting was Chris Rogers, who fulfilled all the selectors' hopes with deep wells of concentration and, on occasion, disarming fluency of strokeplay. He found difficulties only with Swann, who regularly becalmed him and removed him six times. Otherwise he looked, as he was, a mature student, determined to make the best use of his time. "I set myself high standards," he said after his maiden century, at Chester-le-Street. Indeed he said it several times, and from his mouth it sounded like a meaningful statement rather than a self-help cliche´.

Otherwise the batting was a thing of rags and patches - some eye-catching patches, but patches all the same. When restored to the team, Warner became Rogers's partner, without quite making the position his own; the relative buoyancy of the end-of-series averages of Watson and Smith obscured the untimeliness of their failures. What Australia would have done for Mike Hussey's esprit de corps and counter punching power. The bowling was far more disciplined and resilient than in 2010-11.

Haddin's 29 catches - a world record for a Test series - were a reflection of the tightness of bowlers' lines and their strivings for sideways movement. And the marauding Harris was a tribute to the surgeons who had rebuilt him over the previous few years. He saved his only injury for the last day of the last Test; until then, he had never been less than excellent, and England may have ended the series quietly grateful that he hadn't been deemed match-fit for Trent Bridge. In his pace, seam and physical presence, Australia had a genuine attack leader; his roughing-up of Trott became one of the subplots of the series. He chipped in with useful runs, too, and threw himself around in the field.

Stuart Broad and James Anderson hold the urn, England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 5th day, August 25, 2013
Stuart Broad and James Anderson, who were instrumental in England's plans to beat Australia, hold the urn © Getty Images

Harris's support varied. Pattinson showed spirit until he was invalided out of the tour with a stress fracture after the Second Test. And while the tireless Siddle started well, and always did his damnedest, only nine of his 17 wickets were top-order batsmen, and he did not strike in his last 51 overs. Watson bowled economically but without luck. Mitchell Starc, dropped twice, and Jackson Bird, picked once, suffered from the vagaries of selection and the onset of injury. Lyon, once he had been reselected, bowled steadily, and acquitted himself gamely against the menacing Pietersen. Other pluses were the spirit in which James Faulkner approached his only outing, at The Oval, and the pace Mitchell Johnson worked up in the NatWest one-day series - a miserable, rain-ruined affair further emaciated by a below-strength England side, but which Australia nevertheless deserved to win. Aaron Finch's brutal 156 in the drawn Twenty20 series was an entertaining distraction.

Of England it was harder to obtain an absolute, as distinct from a relative, impression. And they tended to go slightly under-reported, if only because their taciturn leadership, unsentimental proficiency and occasional insouciant gamesmanship made them a less alluring subject than Australia's decline and flux. It is possible that, at times, they overestimated Australia, and that Cook and team director Andy Flower threw their defensive switch prematurely. But, at the centre of a web of tight personal relations, they could take credit for an obviously united dressing-room.

What they tried out was only a qualified success. If he exhibited an immediate pedigree, Root - chosen as Cook's new opening partner in place of Nick Compton, who publicly expressed his displeasure - achieved little more than one big second-innings hundred; his Yorkshire team-mate Jonny Bairstow was impressive mainly in the field; and of two new caps at The Oval, all rounder Chris Woakes made but a small contribution, and left-arm spinner Simon Kerrigan a negative one.

But one tough call was dead right: the supplanting of Steven Finn, after a shaky show in Nottingham, with Tim Bresnan, nine of whose ten wickets were in the top six. One of them was perhaps the biggest of the series - a searing lifter which dismissed Warner at the Riverside, precipitating Australia's final subsidence. And though Matt Prior had a mediocre time of it, the lower order of Bresnan, Broad and Swann all helped out. It was with the bat, too, that Broad made arguably his most telling contribution to Ashes folklore, when he nicked Agar to Clarke at slip via Haddin's glove at Nottingham, did not budge and was given not out by Aleem Dar - the error compounded by the fact that Australia had no reviews left. Lehmann was later lured into telling an Australian radio station that Broad had been guilty of "blatant cheating", and urged fans to "give it to him right from the word go" during the return leg in the Australian summer; for his rabble-rousing, Lehmann was fined 20% of his Oval match fee.

At times, the DRS became almost a third participant in the series, without an obvious improvement in the accuracy of the adjudication; the fact that only four of the ICC's 12 elite umpires were eligible to stand (the other eight were English or Australian) did not help matters. Some decisions flew in the face of logic, the umpires being unable to work out the scope for their intervention. Obviously wrong decisions were upheld; a few perfectly fair verdicts were overturned; and the patent unreliability of Hot Spot occasioned a self-serving complaint from its inventor, Warren Brennan, about players using silicone tape on the outside of their bats to defeat the infrared technology. It all meant that the hall outside the third umpire's room might well have been renamed the corridor of uncertainty.

Players sometimes looked entirely mystified by their dismissals, and the sight of a batsman actually walking off after the umpire raised his finger, one of cricket's glories, was turned into a weird archaism. Given how slavishly people are inclined to ape behaviour they see on television, one wonders about the repercussions. Cricket used to worry about dissent; dissent is now respected, even enshrined.

Match reports for

Australia v West Indies at Cardiff, Jun 1, 2013

Australia v India at Cardiff, Jun 4, 2013

3rd Match, Group A: England v Australia at Birmingham, Jun 8, 2013
Report | Scorecard

7th Match, Group A: Australia v New Zealand at Birmingham, Jun 12, 2013
Report | Scorecard

12th Match, Group A: Australia v Sri Lanka at The Oval, Jun 17, 2013
Report | Scorecard

Tour Match: Somerset v Australians at Taunton, Jun 26-29, 2013

Tour Match: Worcestershire v Australians at Worcester, Jul 2-5, 2013

1st Test: England v Australia at Nottingham, Jul 10-14, 2013

2nd Test: England v Australia at Lord's, Jul 18-21, 2013

Tour Match: Sussex v Australians at Hove, Jul 26-28, 2013

3rd Test: England v Australia at Manchester, Aug 1-5, 2013

4th Test: England v Australia at Chester-le-Street, Aug 9-12, 2013

Tour Match: England Lions v Australians at Northampton, Aug 16-17, 2013

5th Test: England v Australia at The Oval, Aug 21-25, 2013

1st T20I: England v Australia at Southampton, Aug 29, 2013

2nd T20I: England v Australia at Chester-le-Street, Aug 31, 2013

Only ODI: Scotland v Australia at Edinburgh, Sep 3, 2013

1st ODI: England v Australia at Leeds, Sep 6, 2013

2nd ODI: England v Australia at Manchester, Sep 8, 2013

3rd ODI: England v Australia at Birmingham, Sep 11, 2013

4th ODI: England v Australia at Cardiff, Sep 14, 2013

5th ODI: England v Australia at Southampton, Sep 16, 2013

© John Wisden & Co.