SYDNEY, (Reuters) – Seven weeks of intense Ashes battle across Australia ended, as most of them have over the last three decades, with the hosts revelling in a comprehensive series triumph after an emphatic victory at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The series included several singular elements, including a farewell to Perth’s perpetually sunbaked WACA ground and the introduction of day-night cricket under lights at the Adelaide Oval.
But for the English contingent among the more than 850,000 fans who streamed through the gates at the five venues, there was a depressingly familiar story arc to the start of the series at least.
England’s preparations had been disrupted by the saga over whether one of their best players, all-rounder Ben Stokes, would be allowed to tour after being filmed fighting outside a nightclub in September. He wasn’t.
There were the breathless stories in the Australian media, the most damaging breaking during the opening match of the series about how wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow had greeted Australia’s Cameron Bancroft with a ‘friendly’ head-butt a month previously.
England were beaten at Brisbane, as most touring teams are, and put up a strong showing without being able to drive home their advantage with the pink ball in Adelaide before meekly relinquishing the urn with an innings defeat in Perth.
There, though, the story took something of a diversion – at least from the narrative of the ill-fated 2014-15 tour when the squad simply disintegrated in the face of a humiliating whitewash.
“The games may not have not gone well but there has been no infighting within the squad,” said Bairstow, who was on both tours, as the fifth test took a negative turn.
“There have been a few things thrown at us while we have been here but there have been no fractures within the group which is a huge positive for us as people and players moving forward.”
They were robbed of the chance of a consolation victory in the drawn Boxing Day test in Melbourne at least in part by a dead pitch that was rated “poor” by the International Cricket Council, and showed considerable fight before another innings loss in Sydney.
Not giving up, while admirable, is not going to win a test series, however, and England have now gone 10 matches and seven years since winning a test in Australia, and 11 matches since an away win anywhere.
The bowling attack for the large part was not good enough to limit the scoring of the Australian batsmen, let alone take 20 wickets a match, and Moeen Ali enjoyed the dismal fate of most visiting frontline spinners in Australia.
Captain Joe Root typified the batting of the top order, getting a start in most innings but unable to turn any one of them into a century, and the tail, with the hapless Ali completely out of form, mostly failed to wag.
Dawid Malan was one bright spot with his maiden test century and Alastair Cook hit a magnificent unbeaten 244, albeit at Melbourne after the series had been lost.
Ranged against that was consistent brilliance of Australia skipper Steve Smith, who matched England’s series tally of three centuries on his own – two of them unbeaten and the third a double.
Apparently unmoveable at times, the cricket world’s most famous fidgeter was the inevitable choice as Player of the Series after a Bradmanesque 687 runs at an average of 137.4.
There were six other centuries from Australians – two apiece from the controversially selected Marsh brothers – which was a reward, Smith said, for their patience.
Batting is, of course, a considerably less pressured occupation when your bowlers are doing their job and Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc all took more than 20 wickets over the series in a bravura display of pace bowling.
Off spinner Nathan Lyon also managed 21 in a superb series and his nickname of GOAT – Greatest Of All Time – might be starting to lose the original tongue-in-cheek inflection were Shane Warne not still ever-present in the commentary box.
That the other initially controversial selection, Tim Paine, was solid as a rock behind the stumps might embolden the selectors to trust their gut instincts for further changes as Australia head on to a series in South Africa.
Smith is hoping not and thinks the existing team might just be able to take Australia back to the top of the test rankings, and more importantly perform the tricky task of retaining the Ashes on English soil in 2019.
“This team has been magnificent in this series, the cricket we’ve played has been great so I think the more we play together the more we are going to get better as a group,” he said.
“We have just got to keep getting better and improving as a team.”