Oval provides another curate’s egg of a Test

Mitchell Marsh celebrates after taking the wicket of Ian Bell for 13 after Australia had enforced the follow-on. Picture: AFP/Getty
Mitchell Marsh celebrates after taking the wicket of Ian Bell for 13 after Australia had enforced the follow-on. Picture: AFP/Getty
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What a curious Ashes series. Not a single Test match has been close. England were dominant at Cardiff, Edgbaston and Trent Bridge and Australia have owned both north and south London with superb performances at Lord’s and now at the Oval.

They have been winning this match since the moment Alastair Cook, swayed by a slight green tinge on the wicket, elected to bowl having won the toss.

It was a decision based on what happened at Trent Bridge but that really was an extraordinary first morning and was unlikely to be repeated. Instead Cook gifted Australia first use of a good Oval wicket and they ensured they did not squander it.

Chris Rogers, in his final Test match, was as stubborn and workmanlike as ever and his opening partnership with David Warner negated England’s initial enthusiasm. It was a shame Rogers did not reach a half century but he has done his job this series. He has 480 runs, the second highest tally and only 28 behind Steve Smith. They are excellent figures but the series result will overshadow his excellence.

Warner, the new vice-captain, has also done reasonably well and his 85 on the first day was an unusual mix of accumulation and defence. He really has worked hard on becoming more than a simple ‘bash em’ hitter and in the long run if he can blend this more nuanced and circumspect approach with his natural aggression and belligerence he will be a very feared player.

With Smith adding another century Australia should be wondering how they have lost this series. There are runs in their side but as a batting group they have collectively failed too often. However exactly the same could be said of England.

Joe Root has been wonderful, England’s equivalent of Smith and Cook has fought and scrapped for runs as he was still doing yesterday, his resistance proving to his teammates that there were no demons in the pitch. It was occasional leg spinner Smith that finally got him just five minutes before the close when he prodded a catch to short leg. He had batted, or stonewalled for 234 balls and 85 runs, a salutary lesson to some of his teammates who have contributed intermittently or not at all throughout the series. And yet they are Ashes winners proving just how curious a series this has been.

The morning was resistance by the overnight pair, Moeen Ali and Mark Wood but it only ever looked token. Once Mitchell Johnson had done for both of them it was a delicious moment for Michael Clarke in his final match to ask England to follow-on 332 behind. That is a massive deficit, especially on such a good surface and soon they were struggling once more at 140-5. For Clarke it must have been delightful and he deserves a valedictory victory. Since the series was lost at Trent Bridge and his retirement announced he has received some dreadful castigation from pundits and ex players. Whether any of it was warranted is questionable but he deserved better treatment as he has represented Australian cricket with dignity for more than a decade.

Sadly his batting has not been good enough and that is partly why Australia lost the Ashes. A home farewell having lifted the World Cup back in March would have been more fitting but the lure of one more crack at England in England was so strong he remained.

When he has enjoyed this victory though he will wonder how he has lost his fourth Ashes in England and fifth overall. It is odd to think how narrow the gap between these two sides is and yet the series was done in four matches.

England just got more of the little things right. Ali at number eight has provided crucial runs, more than 250 of them and also claimed 12 wickets, frequently important ones.

Stuart Broad delivered the spell of a lifetime at Trent Bridge that won a match in 60 minutes and overall the catching has been superb, especially in the England slip cordon.

Australia in contrast have been betrayed by poor batting at numbers four to six. Clarke, Mitchell Marsh, Adam Voges and Shane Watson have scored a combined 430 runs from 24 innings. They also made mistakes in selection omitting the parsimonious Peter Siddle from the seam friendly pitches in the midlands. He has proved his continued worth in this match delivering 29 overs thus far and conceding just 46 runs with his wickets beeing Adam Lyth twice and Ian Bell.

For both countries though the mind has moved on to challenges new. Australia have retirees to replace and others nearing the end of their careers to manage. England have Pakistan in the UAE and South Africa in the winter. The cricket that has won this series is unlikely to win either of those.