The last time England won the Ashes, it was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in bright sunshine, with an innings victory.
This time, they retained the urn on a dour, dank, drizzly afternoon at Old Trafford, during a terminal interruption in play, before which they’d been stodgily batting out time in order to avoid defeat – while still managing to lose three wickets. There’s something appropriately British about this scenario. And yet it feels odd.
It feels odd because of the wonky nature of the reality compared with the bullish predictions beforehand; nothing feels resolved. Perhaps it’s because of the brevity with which England have achieved their main objective – this series has been wrapped up in only 14 days of play – but it feels like we haven’t even begun to unravel the readiness of each side for Brisbane in November, or even in relation to each other.
Australia came close at Trent Bridge due to a freakish innings from their debutant number eleven. They then dashed expectations that they’d be a proper threat to England at Lord’s, where they batted like the man in the story by Borges who dreams he’s been tasked with upholding the honour of his family at a historic chess tournament fought regularly between two rival dynasties, only to realise as he takes his place at the board that he doesn’t even know the rules. Unfortunately for Australia, however, Lord’s was one nightmare from which they didn’t wake up.
And now this Test. If Old Trafford had been the first Test in the series, with four more to come, you’d be forgiven for thinking that England were done for. Kevin Pietersen finally answered the call of destiny that invariably rings out when greatness is needed, and Ian Bell’s form has been a pleasant surprise on the back of his recent travails, but with a paucity of runs from such previous stalwarts as Cook, Trott, and Prior, there are worrying gaps in England’s batting form, dry patches on an otherwise lush lawn that suggests this English garden might need some tending in readiness for the harsher climes of an Ashes series down under.
And what if Australia, buoyed by the fact they’d likely have had this match won if not for the rain, win the last two matches at Durham and the Oval and draw the series? England will have retained the Ashes, but only by default.
And, looking even further ahead, Australia’s top order finally seems to be coalescing; it’s reasonable to assume that David Warner, promoted back up the order to open with Chris Rogers in the second innings, will remain there come November, while the disappointing Shane Watson, who still offers something with the ball, will be demoted to six. The only questions surround captain Clarke’s position in the order – his magnificent 187 came at number four, where previously he has averaged only 21.51 – and whether there is still a place in the side for Phillip Hughes, who arguably did nothing wrong before being shunted aside to let prodigal son Warner back in.
The warning to never underestimate Australia hardly bears repeating, but it would seem after their Lord’s defeat, many had started to do just that. England are still, on paper, the better side, but they won the first Test by a tiny margin largely due to the fact they were unable to bag Agar’s wicket until he’d enhanced the scoreboard by 98 runs. England were dominant at Lord’s, and then against all expectation Australia put 527 runs on the board at Old Trafford after winning the toss, and would have won had the weather not intervened. Australia could easily go on and win the next Test. Or they could collapse in a heap the way they did at Lord’s. Nothing is clear-cut. England, similarly, could take their foot off the gas now that the urn (metaphorically) isn’t going anywhere, and a series result of 2-2 sounds a damn sight less impressive than the 5-0 whitewash many were predicting.
This was also the match in which we were given a timely reminder that Michael Clarke and Kevin Pietersen are crucial to their sides. Clarke finally scored a captain’s innings, albeit two Tests too late, and Pietersen helped set up what the weather finished with an innings of 113 when everyone else bar Cook and Bell failed to significantly add to England’s total. In both men the spirit is as willing as it ever was, but the body in each case is looking increasingly rickety. In the case of Clarke, it’s hard not to envision a physio’s folder bulging with X-rays, scans, printouts, rehab schedules and pain-relief dosages. The discs in Clarke’s spinal column have been degenerating since he was 17, probably even before that. You may marvel now at his cavalry-commander, lead-from-the-front batting, the cultured aggression against spin, the ability to fly the flag, on and off the field, for his team, but at what price further on down the line when he’s no longer playing the game? Pietersen too is, by his admission “an old man”, revealing that he had decided to forego surgery on his knee because it would have put him out of action for nine months. While there were still the predictable digs in the press at his perceived short-comings as a man rather than appreciation for his greatness as a batsman, there will never be another like him. The introvert who loves the big stage, the man whose simple attitude to life is made so needlessly complicated by others, the man who, in short, lights up a cricket ground like no other when he is putting bowling attacks to the sword… we should enjoy him while we can because his career, too, is approaching a crossroads in terms of balancing an impossible workload with a worn-out body.
It may have been a damp, sputtering denouement after all the red-hot hype, but if there’s one scintillating memory that remains, it was Kevin Pietersen’s outrageous shot that brought up his hundred, a shot Errol Flynn would have been proud of in his Hollywood swashbuckling pomp; a whirl of the bat above the head, blade angled just so, a flamboyant uppercut that sent the ball sailing over third man, and the crowd surging to their feet, roaring their approval. It was Pietersen’s 113 that dug the defensive moat around England’s castle at Old Trafford, and it was the rain that filled it.