Ashes 2019: England and Australia bring curtain down on unforgettable summer
In the place it all started back in May, England drew the final Ashes Test to end one of the most historic cricketing summers we'll ever see
The Oval, English cricket’s destination for goodbyes, consolation parties, victory marches and any other timbre of parting gestures, is used to endings. The embers of summer is what it trades in. Whether a home Test series be at tipping point, categorically done and dusted, or puffed out in admission of its own fatigue, they all end here.
Tradition, as a convenient focus for this full stop, usually has it that we wave goodbye to a cricketing great who has come to the end of their road, and perhaps more subconsciously, us a part of ours too. Close your eyes, rewind the tape and you can reel off the roll call of living legends taking their leave whilst the gasworks look on. Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh walking off arm in arm. Shane Warne saluting with his wide brimmed hat, parting with Glenn McGrath in step for the last time in England. Alastair Cook hanging up his perpetually ill-fitting helmet to a chanceless hundred.
This year, when Joe Root dived spectacularly low to his left, catching Nathan Lyon off the bowling of English cricket’s new left-field hero, Jack Leach, to seal an uncharacteristically routine victory, there was an air of momentary confusion in the celebration. We had won, the series drawn, the Ashes Australia’s and nobody was retiring.
We knew these facts, yet it felt at once heavy and woozy. This was more an intangible, nameless sadness that comes with the end of the best of times. As soon as Root clung on, suddenly looking lighter and younger when mobbed by his team, we too were lighter, no longer one organism loosely tied together by this enthralling sequence of events. It was time, ready or otherwise, to say goodbye to a summer that has allowed us to be as outlandishly optimistic as we dared, where the impossible was possible and where cricket somehow stretched on and on and further still and refused to relent in its unwavering theatre.
The Ashes already being retained by the time we reached South London did lend a slightly extended ‘school’s out so who cares’ attitude to the entirety of the week here. It would not take the most perceptive to observe that everyone seemed much more at ease. Tim Paine and the Australians perhaps too much so, who won the toss and put England in to bat on a flat pitch and then shelled an almost comic amount of catches on day one to concede a head start that they never really looked like making up.
The odd slapstick moment thereon in begun to rear its head. Jonny Bairstow, pretending to field a non-existent ball for a run-out, made Steve Smith dive for ground that he didn’t need to make. These were the schoolyard victories England had now settled for with Smith who, when departing for the last time to a smart plan and sharp leg-side chance taken by Ben Stokes, was given a standing ovation. Given the incessant booing that followed him everywhere when this summer began, it represented a fairly accurate quantification of his achievements. His ‘sandpaper trio’ counterparts have been less successful.
Cameron Bancroft spent the week running around on twelfth man duties and David Warner became the series only knowable case; Stuart Broad would take his wicket immediately. Whilst walking off for the last time he flashed a strangely senile smile, as if he was in on a joke but had forgotten what it was anymore.
As a theme, there was humane relief in watching the struggling cast of batsmen on both sides depart for the last time. There was less trudging away on all parts, just visible relief that their misery could finally end. Batting has looked hard all series. Even Joe Denly, having been harshly criticised all summer, didn’t seem particularly fussed about having to go for just six short of his first Ashes hundred. I can’t imagine ninety-four or one hundred feels like a particularly big deal either way when you’ve been in hospital the night previous for the birth of your second child.
The slackening of tension on and off pitch blended into a flaring of aggravations that hadn’t previously been as noticeable. Its eventual centrepiece was in one of the less likely duels, Jofra Archer bowling to obvious irritant Matthew Wade. Archer was as restless to get the whole thing done inside four days as the security staff and groundspeople, who suddenly locked in and cheered the last wickets in the final session at the prospect of a final day off.
Bowling a barrage of short balls, now demanded of him by baying crowds across the country, he begun to punctuate the exchange with a necessary stop and chat after every ball. In broad terms it was a passage of play that consisted of a bodyline missile that either flew past Wade or bounced off some part of his anatomy, followed by a compulsory communicative exchange afterwards. At first there was the age-old fast bowler glare and flurry of inquisitive insults. Next, a surreal walk within touching distance. Then the unflinching eye contact double tea pot, statuesque for an uncomfortably long period of time.
Third came the more orthodox sarcastic round of applause. Finally, and my personal favourite, Archer simply collected the ball off his own bowling and then rolled it gently towards Wade. The Australian, perplexed yet standing his ground, watched it slowly come towards him as if it were a prop in a Kubrick film indicating something chilling about to happen. Wade, who quite possibly has not seen The Shining, shrugged it off and batted with no little skill and courage to reach a hundred to add to his three figures at Edgbaston. It was the last piece of soap opera in a series shaped by singular performances against other displays of the admittedly ordinary.
The juxtaposition of the two was fitting to bring to the Oval, which is unique for it’s same glorious ordinariness rubbing up against the historic. There is something miraculous about this patch of land that is squeezed so tightly into the middle of everyday London. Looked over by council houses and flats, with small breaks in the gates so passing traffic can catch a glimpse of deep mid-wicket and the scorecard if rolling past slowly enough, it’s the kind of place that has redemptive power inside the oblivious world beyond it.
It gave the final Test, taking place largely under cloudless skies in a clammy glory, a jaded communal shrug of a victory lap. Having said that, that could easily have just been the drinking. The bars were so overflowing and oblivious to the game situation for long periods that in the OCS stand the floors became so sticky that seasoned spectators were continuously lifting the soles of their feet off the floor as if doing a stationary gym class in order to not get stuck.
The World Cup had started here of course, earmarked by Archer’s appearance and Stokes’ flying take in the deep. Little did we know then that it would only be the tiniest prologue to what has rolled out in front of us all.
So here’s to a summer of unprecedented validation for the game. A sprawled period of time in which cricket’s lack of visibility was less of an irk, it’s appeal contagious without question, Allah was on our side and this game, so often rooted in absolute failure, became, once more, something of communal rapture. As we spend the next few days re-evaluating how we will navigate every day life without earpieces round our necks or one headphone always in, half in one conversation and half out in the middle, it was at least, through the television coverage, comforting to hang at least a couple of goodbyes on this anchorless feeling.
Ian Botham and David Gower, two ever presents in any form of English cricket for decades, on their final broadcasting duties, said their last pieces. Botham, his playing days aped in so many ways by Stokes this summer, did it by wearing shorts and toasting a glass of Botham’s wine. Gower, in the most cinematic of gestures all week, left Michael Atherton on the pitch during the lunchtime analysis without prompt, pulled out his earplug and walked heroically, if in somewhat bizarre fashion, out towards the batter friendly surface to stand upon it one last time. He’d have made hay this week.