England retain the Ashes.
Yes, England retain the Ashes. But for a number of reasons they would be naive to consider their mission fully accomplished.
The circumstances of this final day were such that celebrations were rightly muted – this evening the party will hopefully be limited to a few pints of local ale, rather than the central London champagneathon that followed the 2005 series. In avoiding defeat, England cannot lose the series and thus Australia cannot regain the Ashes (sorry, #ReturnTheUrn). Yet there are enough objectives still lying ahead of them that they should consider the job only half, or even three-tenths, done. Whilst the mantra of taking each game as it comes is laudable, there has to be a bigger picture, just as there was as England rose to number one in the world rankings (a task nonetheless made easier by taking each game as it came). It will be the scoreline after the fifth day at the Oval that will ultimately matter, and then a few months later, the scoreline come the end of the Sydney Test.
The sensible contingent here at 51allout (i.e. not James or Aussie Matt) suspected that Australia were perfectly capable of winning one match in this series, the reason being that England were too inconsistent and would in all likelihood have one nightmare game in which the batting collapsed not once but twice. Kevin Pietersen, the tail and – eventually – the weather ensured that this scenario did not occur in Manchester. Whether it will happen in County Durham is debatable, for surely England can’t lose three wickets for fewer than 30 runs for a fourth time in five innings, particularly as Ryan Harris is (edited at the request of the 51allout lawyers) due an injury. Questions are beginning to be asked about Jonny Bairstow, but his place is assured for this series at least. If England do make any changes, as ever it will be the bowlers who are shuffled. Being his home ground, Graham Onions must have a fairly decent chance of playing, although it would be no surprise if he was humiliated by having yet another game spent fetching gloves for a perspiring Ian Bell and doing the Guardian crossword. If he does play, Tim Bresnan is the most likely to make way, despite having had two solid Tests. The only alternative would be if Jimmy Anderson is considered too knackered.
Our slightly downbeat reaction is really because England have not performed to their best of their abilities thus far – which is something that they constantly harp on about in their media interviews. Being 2-0 up with two to play is a fine situation to be in – but 4-0 up would taste much much sweeter.
Well they showed that they can, after all, post a handsome total on the board. As predicted, it was Michael Clarke who was the ultimate difference and the fact remains that no other Australian has yet scored a century in this series. The method of so many dismissals in this game and in the series suggests that it is far from likely that one will in the the next two Tests either. And that includes Steve Smith, who for all his attacking prowess has gotten himself out a few times now with reckless shots (his time will come, though). But a handful of scores in the 50-90 zone, added to Watto’s inevitable 20-odd, may make them competitive. Despite the disappointment of only drawing a game in which they were dominant for long periods, there will probably be a psychological lift from their performances here – and they may also have stumbled on their preferred top seven for the remainder of the series (famous last words, cue Matt Wade being called up instead of Usman Khawaja).
The bowling is, on paper at least, their strength. Peter Siddle and Harris would feasibly get in a combined Team of the Series and if fit, they will continue to trouble England. However Mitchell Starc has been inconsistent – evidenced by his opening over in the second innings, in which Joe Root left every delivery – and may be at risk of being dropped again. The Chester-le-Street pitch is likely to be well-suited to Jackson Bird, whose selection would get tabloid headline writers all aflutter. Of more importance is the role of the spinner; with his opening spell Nathan Lyon showed that he can get turn and bounce and that he should never have been omitted in the first place, but as the game progressed his ineffectiveness when compared with Graeme Swann was notable – particularly after Pietersen got him in his sights. Admittedly he may have bounced back on the final day, but on a wet day it was always going to be the seamers who led the attack.
Whereas it was a shambles that play was terminated on Sunday night for bad light, a large bucket of credit must go to the Lancashire ground staff (and whoever was responsible for the Old Trafford drainage), because getting play underway at 11.30 was miraculous. In a high-profile series in which cricket has not fared particularly well, it was some comfort – though of course the blessed afternoon rain that may have saved England was very welcome indeed.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to write about cricket without mentioning DRS.