The best of times were at the beginning and the very end.
At Trent Bridge in July, Brad Haddin took Australia to within 15 runs of a win that had been made possible by an astonishing drama played out by an unknown 19-year-old named Ashton Agar. Last man in after five wickets had fallen for 10 runs, he hit 12 fours and two sixes in scoring 98. The last wicket stand of 163 was a world record in Tests.
What then happened in Nottingham was that Brad Haddin thrashed England’s bowlers in a second famous 10th wicket stand; this one was 65 with James Pattinson. It took Australia to the brink of a famous victory. The brink was not far enough.
At the very end of this Ashes series, England almost snatched a win after a generous declaration by Michael Clarke almost awarded them a memorable but undeserved win. The target was 227 in 44 overs, and only bad light, 21 short of a win stopped them their tracks.
England’s administrators and radio commentators did not think this was the best of times at all; they became hysterical about the injustice of it and demanded immediate changes in the ICC rules. But the light would have deteriorated further in the time it would take to bowl the last four overs, and, even with the floodlights on, no one has made a red ball that batsmen and fielders can see in the gloaming. (White balls are used only in floodlit one-day cricket; pink has been tried, without success; what about yellow?)
The worst of times began at Lord’s where Australia’s performance with the bat in both innings (128 in the first and then 235) was utterly dismal. A defeat by 347 runs seemed to confirm every prediction about the impotence of an Australian team. Clarke and his players spent the rest of the summer trying to show that they were not as bad as they looked. By the time they got to The Oval, they had succeeded.
England won the Ashes because they played as if they expected to win; Australia the reverse. They lost their nerve at Lord’s and in Durham, where a run-chase was going particularly well until Broad began an inspired spell and the Australia’s collective nerve snapped. As case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it was embarrassing to watch.
Statisticians looking at the averages will find the overall result hard to understand. Three Australian batsmen averaged over 40 compared to only two for England. The bad news for Australia was Ian Bell was odd man out, averaging 62.44 with three hundreds; two of them made England wins possible. He was the player of the series.
Ryan Harris (24 wickets at 19.58) had the best bowling average by far; Anderson (22 wickets at 29.59), Broad (22 at 27.45) and Swann (26 at 29.03) were more expensive, but more effective. England won 3-0, partly because of rain in Manchester and The Oval, but principally because of performances by three match-winning bowlers. Jimmy Anderson took 10 for 158 in Nottingham; Stuart Broad 11 for 121 in Durham, and Graeme Swann 9 for 122 in the Lord’s Test.
Apart from the bowling, there were few memorable performances. Big innings from Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Joe Root, but only Root could claim to have helped win a game. Kevin Pietersen was magnificent in the run-chase at The Oval (the fastest 50 by an Englishman in Ashes history), but otherwise he did not command the arena, even when he scored a hundred at Old Trafford.
England was “a unit”; it was an efficient collective performance, but it was mostly without colour. That was provided by Haddin who had had such a good try at rewriting the plot at Nottingham. He took 29 catches behind the wicket, a record for all Ashes series.
David Warner, the naughty man, brought more colour to the game when he finally made it back into the team. He was, by a distance, the best fielder of all. When Pietersen skied a slog to long on at The Oval, it was Warner who made the vital catch look so easy. He saved innumerable runs by diving hard and forward to stop balls crossing the boundary rope. Any ball bit into his vicinity was good only for a single rather than a quick two. As a batsman, he forced the audience to concentrate, even though he delivered only once, in Durham, where it looked as if he might be capable of winning the game – before the rot set in.
The greatest entertainer was Shane Watson, mainly because of his refusal in four Tests to admit the error in his technique that regularly got him out lbw, and because of his determination to review the correct lbw decisions that went against him. The laugh he had at The Oval, when he scored 176, might not prove to be the last one, but it did cause him to crack a smile.
Australia were often awful; England were often patchy. England looked like a team that might be at the beginning of a long-term decline. Clarke’s Australians suggested that they might be capable of emerging from their long slump.
The good news is that in the Ashes series starting in Brisbane in November, the two teams will be more evenly matched.