ENGLAND have won the Ashes. That most cherished of urns is back in the grasp of England and in some magnificent style. To be leading an Ashes series 3-1 after four matches is almost uncharted territory for England but the truth is, apart from the defeat at Lord’s where they were second best from the opening over, England have barely lost a session.
From the dismal depths of the winter when they were a shambolic mess they have become a ruthless machine, dismissing the vaunted Australians as contemptuously as if the very idea of this series was a mismatch.
What a transformation. What a reaction by the players and what a start for new managing director, Andrew Strauss. It was he who bluntly squashed the PR battle for Kevin Pietersen to return, he who stunned the pundits by employing Trevor Bayliss as coach instead of the heralded Jason Gillespie and he who allowed the captain, his good mate Alastair Cook, to simply concentrate on the game and ignore all other distractions.
But as much good work is done behind the scenes, and while Bayliss and Paul Farbrace must be hugely commended as the coaching heads, it is the players who win and lose matches.
When Mark Wood bowled Nathan Lyon there was a huge outpouring of emotion for this group. For Cook it was redemption for 20 months ago when he suffered the indignity of leading England to a 5-0 whitewash, his second. That final Test at the SCG saw the end of Pietersen and the dropping of Joe Root. Remember that? Since then Cook himself had been under scrutiny and on a couple of occasions could easily have been replaced. Indeed he was for one-day cricket, so to win this Ashes in only four matches was deserved reward for a hard-working man.
His dismissal from the one-day team before last Christmas really was a blessing as it allowed him to concentrate on correcting technical faults for Test matches and gave him an extended break to rediscover energy, zest and enthusiasm. He hated the decision at the time but might not so much now.
But England did not win this series because of Cook, they have won it with one match still to play because they had a number of players performing under pressure. Good teams need at least one player, preferably more, who can alter the course of a match by their own individual effort. In this series England have found a succession of individuals who can grasp a match and bend it to their will.
In Nottingham this week there were three players who did just that. The opening morning was about one man, Stuart Broad. Every few years there is a spell of bowling that completely makes a mockery of a match and opposition. Malcolm Marshall did it, Curtly Ambrose did it, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram did it and of course England’s old nemesis Shane Warne did it. Broad has earned mention with those greats of the modern game. His 8-15 was extraordinary as was the catching in the slip cordon that supported him.
Then it was Root, easily the best batsman in Test cricket in the world at the moment, scoring his eighth Test century and, with every run, it sapped the fight from Australia who started to look wearier and wearier with every passing hour.
And the final blows were struck by Ben Stokes who ripped through the Australian second innings, thwarting what had the makings of a decent fightback. Stokes is potentially a true great of the game. He has it all. His fielding is superb, both catching close and in the outfield. His slip catch on Thursday was a photographer’s dream as he was at full stretch and grasped the ball one-handed as it flew hard and fast to his right.
His batting can change the course of a match within a single session. No one who saw his century in Perth two years ago or earlier this year at Lord’s against New Zealand could doubt his ability and on Friday he blew the fragile Australian resistance away with a devastating spell of fast medium swing bowling.
These three dominated Trent Bridge but Steven Finn performed at Edgbaston, the perennially excellent James Anderson everywhere except Lord’s and even the unheralded likes of Moeen Ali has constantly contributed with both bat and ball. The only disappointments have been Gary Ballance and Adam Lyth. The rest has been a collective effort sprinkled with outstanding performances.
With the Ashes won, though, the management do need to consider what improvements are necessary. Bayliss alluded to that in his post-match television interview and that could mean a debut for Adil Rashid at the Oval and perhaps a call up for Alex Hales as opener.
This winter England travel to the UAE to play Pakistan and pitches there will not help the seamers and swing bowlers move the ball sideways. That is England’s great strength when bowling so they do need to plan bowling on docile, dry pitches that offer little bounce and carry.
The challenge for this side now is to use this fantastic Ashes win as merely the start of a spell of consistently good, winning cricket. When the team that won the Ashes in 2005 travelled to play Pakistan the following winter they were humbled. It was an opportunity wasted.
Strauss was part of that, so he should be working to prevent that happening again and with Ali as the frontline spinner, Strauss will know a frontline tweaker must be found and swiftly.
For Australia the choices are starker. Michael Clarke, the captain, has already announced his retirement. His form has been poor but Australia will miss him. He has led them superbly, behaved mostly with dignity and last winter showed Australian cricketers at their best as he became the grieving voice for a nation stunned by the death on the SCG of Phil Hughes. It is a sad end for a magnificent cricketer but sport is a harsh mistress and rarely indulges in fairy tales. Not at the end of careers anyway.