Never mind England’s misery, celebrate Australia’s Ashes brilliance
Have Australia been good or have England been bad? Obviously, this is the only way to analyse the Ashes. And it allows us to fling open the door to a frenzy of sizzling takes through its zero sum, binary veneer.
“Hapless England” certainly makes for engaging copy. Not only can we pick at the carcass of an on-field humiliation, but we can opine on the macro social, cultural and economic forces that shape Haseeb Hameed’s low hands. It allows David Warner to gift advice on syntho preparation. The Barmy Army can become cricket’s version of an industry lobbyist. And while “Chris Cooke bowling spells the death of Test cricket” might offer a lively conversation point, it conveniently ignores the fact he actually hoops them.
It is also true, though unpopular, to say that Australia have been good. Six weeks ago this was a team that had more questions hovering over it than Prince Andrew. David Warner was turning 35. The young prodigy deigned to partner him had withdrawn, and the alternatives failed to inspire. Steve Smith hadn’t dominated for a while. Marnus Labuschagne was due a downturn. There was a yawning gap in the middle order. Cameron Green was an all-rounder without a wicket. The frontline bowlers didn’t deliver last summer. The team hadn’t played in nearly a year. The rare units of the triumphant T20 team weren’t around to offset the coach. If England could just apply some pressure, would the team return to old dynamics?
Then the skipper resigned amid scandal. We chin-stroked over a bowling captain, irrespective of his eyes and his blazer fitting just-so. We weren’t used to new keepers. For a cricketing nation welded to a tradition of conservatism and incumbency, there was a fair bit of flux.
These were conditions ripe for a surprise. Instead, the Ashes were secured in twelve days.
Beyond the influence of white balls and private schools on England’s cricket, the component parts of Australia’s victory are worth exploring. Most significantly, every single player involved has contributed something meaningful to a win. This is important, because it illustrates a team with a complete working configuration, rare for Australia in modern times.
Previous series wins, however close or dominant, tended to happen on the back of one or two outsized contributions, particularly with the bat. Warner against Pakistan. labuschagne against New Zealand. Smith in England. Here, every incumbent has firmed their grip on their position.
Warner navigated the Gabba with a grizzled opener’s maturity, before an altogether more complete contribution in Adelaide. Labuschagne did the same, but in the reverse fixture. Smith almost capped a return to the captaincy with a century. Travis Head upended a rare moment of English pressure with a violent, match-winning hundred. Cameron Green graduated from gun-barrel to gun with the ball. Alex Carey has twice played the sort of brisk, keeper’s innings to close the door on opposition opportunity. He’s also gloved the ball well enough and eschewed the stardom of the stump mic.
Of the batters, last to join the party was Marcus Harris. He was retained by selectors in Melbourne despite growing calls for change, and responded with an innings of 76 runs from 190 balls, outstripping the entire opposition’s second innings for balls faced. This was a match-winning innings, yet in some quarters it merely cemented views on Harris’s low ceiling. There is a unique phenomenon in Australia, possibly born of the pathways ideology, where we regard players for their future, not current, output, but Harris’ innings would’ve warmed the hardest opener’s heart, and seasoned eyes understand these types of knocks are vital to the consistency of any outfit. Australia will need more of these.
Not least because they ensure bowlers always have something to work with. “The Cartel” have been irrepressible, with hard statistics showing their rewards aren’t simply a function of English ineptitude. For many years track-suited coaches have been wont to say that bowling is a closed skill, and CricViz’s Freddie Wilde gave Australia’s efforts some teeth, noting that, “Australia’s bowling in the Ashes has been the best in a 3+ match series in our ball-tracking database. No team on record has bowled as fast (38% above 140kph) & as accurately (41% on good line & length).”
The world class operators have delivered, and each understudy has impressed. Where Scott Boland’s spirit soared after he stood on the shoulders of his ancestral giants, it was also reward for years and years of pounding the bitumen-esque Junction Oval with hard length after hard length.
There is harmony in the unit too. There has been no macho bullshit, yet. The leadership dynamics overseeing present life are not yet clear, but one suspects the rising influence of calm heads like George Bailey, Tony Dodemaide, Michael Di Venuto, Andrew McDonald and Pat Cummins have helped.
Justin Langer – whether through direction or design – has permitted this and must be afforded credibility for doing so. It begs an awkward question: what does Langer do now? To be fair to him, whatever it is (or isn’t), it’s working. Cummins will be the key voice in his renewal.
For now, the going is good, and the Australian cricketing public is rightly accepting the home Ashes opiate, because like England, the home country has its own systemic problems ready to be revealed once stronger opponents line up in less homely conditions. That’s when when we’ll learn more about the merits of this perennial “almost-team”, as they ready themselves for another trip to explore the summit.