Ashes 2019: Fulfilled but unconvincing, Australia leave the series broadly as they entered it – a drawn series really is the right result
Australia missed out on the grand finale they hoped to have, and leave the Ashes with more questions than answers
Justin Langer is a loquacious and articulate man. But, through his body language, you usually get the full story. Such as it was as Tim Paine and his side held the replica urn aloft at The Oval after their 135-run defeat on the fourth evening, retaining the trophy that matters most on the basis of a drawn series.
Had the coach been offered a first Ashes retention in England since 2001 eight months ago, he would have been elated. Now, not so much. There would be no victorious ‘grand final’ as Tim Paine put it ahead of the South London denouement. Rather, they would leave here fulfilled but a fair way short of convincing.
Of course, this realignment of expectations was governed by such impressive victories in Birmingham and Manchester. Or read another way, because Steve Smith had a couple of worldlies and the pace attack was in mint condition. They still “created lifelong memories” as the coach promised they would when arriving in the country – just consider those who travelled to this country between 2005 and 2015 without reward. This is not a night for mourning a squared series or anything like it, but such a modest reaction to this significant achievement proves that there will be no bathwater skolled in the dressing room tonight.
That there was one final Sunday afternoon frolic was entirely in keeping with this longest summer. When running off the ground, most assumed (or hoped) this would involve David Warner in a meaningful way. After the series from hell, did anything feel more predictable than him boshing a ton and jumping around like he had won Olympic gold? But no, that wasn’t to be.
That the opening partnership of 18 was the highest the Australians had across the five Tests says everything about that mess. The man with 21 Test tons, who has twice hit Test centuries in a session, finishes with 95 runs in ten innings. Remarkable.
Nor it was Smith’s day. At last, the machine malfunctioned. But the 774 series runs he walked off the with – at a ludicrous average of 110 – meant that he was being applauded by everyone other than those with the tiniest of minds. For the bulk of the Tests Australia has played since this corresponding series four years ago, one of Smith or Warner had to prosper to give them a serious chance. This time, it was only the former captain in that category.
Occasionally, Smith had players go with him. Marnus Labuschagne was a revelation in his place then by his side, albeit not today. Bits and pieces players made bits-and-pieces scores. But it was Matthew Wade riding shotgun at Edgbaston on the day when Paine’s side took that Test in the space of four hours from balance to impregnability. And it was the Tasmanian who, in the absence of anyone else, opened the door to something on this Sunday too.
He arrived at the ground a symbol of what had gone wrong for Australia in England’s second dig on Saturday. Predictably chippy close to the bat, he was pulled up by the umpires for taking it too far. The easy conclusion to draw was that post-Sandpaper side were all very keen to play in a spirit they could be proud of – until it wasn’t going their way. Ian Chappell created headlines by telling the world what he thought of Wade: not too much.
But here he was, beyond 50 at the tea break. Jofra Archer, one of the England players who had copped it from him when batting, was at the top of his mark at the pavilion end. It had been a while since he had sent down one of those spells and he had been nondescript to that point in Australia’s chase of 399. But when Wade popped him over the rope from a top edge, it was on. Beaten then bumped, stares were exchanged. A couple of sledges then silence. It wasn’t Lord’s that Saturday afternoon with Smith but it was pulsating. The captain fell and Pat Cummins replaced him, hit by his first ball. Wade then was too. The radar was back up at 95mph.
After eight overs, he was exhausted. Ergo – Wade had won the stoush and was by now in the 90s. Much as it was when bringing up his first Test century on his first tour way back in 2012, he was feted for his guts as much as his strokeplay. That was barely recognisable to the version of the batsman who played 16 innings across 11 months in the side from November 2016 only getting to 50 once.
It was a misadventure from the get-go, brought back principally because a decision made that they were not nasty enough. It’s no coincidence how that ended in Cape Town. But for all the gibberish either behind the stumps or at short leg, this is what he was here for. That he danced and danced at Jack Leach showed he never lost confidence either, despite falling to the tweaker that way at Old Trafford to put his spot under threat.
Did Australia miss a trick in the year that Smith and Warner were out of the side serving their bans in finding and settling on a couple of replacements to do the job on this tour in a bolstered batting line-up upon their return? Probably. It’s anyone’s guess who opens the batting at Brisbane in ten weeks and Travis Head’s omission for this final Test was telling in its own way.
Far closer to 32 than 31, Wade doesn’t feel a long-term answer to anything, but he got back into this side the right way this time – with bulk runs – and goes home buoyed by two Ashes tons. He’s earned his chance to go home confident that he can seriously do this.
Sure, this looks like it will only serve as cold comfort for Langer tonight. But as much as his side deserved to win two Tests with the way they executed their savvy plan at Edgbaston and kept it together at Manchester after the Ben Stokes Headingley Miracle, they also played more than enough shabby cricket the way to lose a couple too.
This really is the right result.