Mark has asked me to point out that the picture captions in his previous article for 51allout were not provided by him (nor indeed those in this article). That’s not to say that he didn’t enjoy the jokes! He remains a fine, humble man, whose brief time with our small team was never less than a pleasure. We hope he will return to write for us again at some point in the near future. As long as he brings the Hendrick’s this time!
Australia is a truly wonderful place. A land of opportunity, from the vast sprawling, sparse beauty of Western Australia through that hot, deserted centre across any number of time zones to the bustling metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne. As a frequent visitor to that splendid land down under, one is only too aware of how important the results of those in the famous baggy green are to the wellbeing of society. In this series, to paraphrase some old friends, they tried and they tried; they tried and they tried but they couldn’t get no satisfaction. That elusive Test match win continued to slip through the fingers, as if the team were trying to grasp what it is to be truly Australian, that most undefinable of qualities.
Of course, while individuals suffered at times, over the course of five games that team learned much and grew stronger. What began in panic, a truly shambolic situation, soon evolved and grew into a spunky, albeit immature, side. There’s no doubt that England will be present at the true rebirth of Australian cricket later this year, when the team leaves base camp to begin the long ascent back to their great zenith under the stewardship of Michael Clarke. Clarke stands above this era of Australian cricket, like a Lord of his manor, as the last remnants of the once unbeatable side of the previous decade. And while his series didn’t touch the immense heights of his form in 2012 – his crippled and cracked back simply wouldn’t allow it – he still produced perhaps the greatest innings of the series in Durham, haunting England’s bowlers like the ghost of Lumley Castle or exquisite middle order tormentors of yore.
Shane Watson, another haunted by ghosts of many different kinds, showed in this series exactly why he frustrates and delights in equal measure, falling victim to technical deficiencies time and time again before emerging at number three at the Oval to produce one of the great Test innings. Watson remains a wonderful player and a long spell at first drop may see him finally establish himself as the legend of the game that his talent has always said he should be. His bowling remains criminally underrated, as if that big front pad is all that can ever be seen of him by friends and foes alike.
The other great batting successes of the series were Chris Rogers and Steven Smith, players representing the best of two different generations of Australian society. Rogers fought every inch of the way, playing the role of Ned Kelly, clad in armour and standing up to the armed forces of England’s bowlers, while Smith showed that, regardless of his ungainly technique, the disappointments of his early career have made him a true street fighting man. With Clarke’s back destined to strike him down one day, sooner or later, Australia could do worse than entrust Steven Smith with the keys to the most important position in the land (and that’s not the one that Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott are currently bickering over).
Australia’s bowlers emerged from the series with much credit. While Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc both demonstrated their capabilities in very different ways – the former metronomically pounding into the crease for hour after hour like a navvy building the railway across the Nullaboor, the latter finding magical unplayable swing on frustratingly rare occasions. But the leader of the attack was Ryan Harris, a hulk of a man built from the rock of Uluru itself. Sadly, like the indigenous lifestyle that the great monolith represents, his is a fragile future, with injuries lurking behind every corner. If he can stay fit he remains the biggest obstacle to England retaining the urn in the heat of the Australian summer.
Like every great battle, as well as heroes there were casualties. Usman Khawaja is a fine young cricketer – and a wonderful young man, part of a family that represents all that modern Australia has to offer the world – but is in need of toughening up. If he had just a fraction of Steven Smith’s heart he would be a guaranteed middle order selection for another decade or more. Ashton Agar‘s debut shocked everyone, but only in terms of asking how such a green spinner – an art that takes years to master – could replace as trusty and reliable a footsoldier as Nathan Lyon. And then there were Ed Cowan and Phil Hughes, two young men that have simply lost their way. Only time will tell if they can find the winding route back to the heart of the maze that is Australian cricket these days. They will have to be wary that you can’t always get what you want.
A final word about Australia’s heartbeat, Brad Haddin. Despite his advancing years he remains an excellent wicketkeeper – 29 catches was as much a tribute to his talents as to that of the bowlers in front of him – and a calm, sensible presence in a team prone to being caught up in the moment. The upcoming Ashes series may well be his last; if so Australia will sorely miss his counsel as much as his reliably quick hands and rugged, obstinate batting. It often seems as if wild horses couldn’t drag him away from the crease.
To summarise – and I would love to write more, as I feel that one of the beauties of cricket is the fact that there are never enough words to cover every detail, every moment, the ebb and flow of time itself – this series was merely the starter. The main course awaits us down under, where the unstoppable force will meet the immovable object. No quarter shall be asked, nor given. With the 67th Ashes series complete, the 68th is tantalisingly within reach: The king is dead. Long live the king!