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Artillery Row

An Ashes autopsy

C’est magnifique, mais

After a scorching barrage of boundaries (74 sixes and 642 fours) and the emotion of Stuart Broad’s retirement, the Ashes is over. With plenty for an England supporter to feel good about, consoled that we “morally” won, with the clearly better team (© Jonathan Agnew) beaten only by the Manchester rain, “Bazball” is confirmed as the miracle formula that has saved Test cricket as a spectator sport. Yes?

Some commentators have described this summer’s contest as the “greatest-ever” Test series — or at least the most exciting. That accolade is usually bestowed (generally, only by Englishmen) on England’s 2-1 retaking of the Ashes in 2005. How do the two series compare?

Why did Ben Stokes’ superb Bazballistic heroes fail?

Both saw a great showman pass 600 Test wickets (Shane Warne; Stuart Broad). The media speculated constantly that England’s wicket-keeper was not good enough. Australia were crippled by an injury to a bowler (Glen McGrath in 2005; Nathan Lyon this time).

In 2005, Michael Vaughan lifted the replica urn, though, whereas this summer it evaded Ben Stokes’ grasp. Why did his superb Bazballistic heroes fail?

We cannot blame the weather. More overs were bowled this year than in 2005 (1,547 versus 1,520), a difference equivalent in today’s devalued currency to an entire extra session of play.

Compared to 2005, “Bazball England” scored slightly more runs (3,079 versus 2,962) for fewer dismissals (85 versus 93), a somewhat higher average (36.22 per wicket versus 31.85). Stokes’ men scored at a faster rate, but Vaughan’s were pretty rapid themselves (4.8 per over versus 3.9). His bowlers took more wickets (93 against 89) but took them more slowly (9.4 overs each versus 8.3).

Australia were much better than in 2005. Their batsmen scored rather more runs (3,010 against 2,810) at a marginally higher average (32.37 against 31.57). Crucially, their bowlers required only 7.4 overs to take a wicket whilst their predecessors needed 9.1. This meant they spent far less time in the field than England (648.5 overs versus 898.1). In 2005, fielding time was more even (England 755.2 overs; Australia 765). Australia’s figures, not England’s, place “Bazball” in its true context.

“Bazball” has come to mean batsmen tonking the ball around the park at a frenetic rate. The theory is easy to grasp. If your batsmen score a lot of runs quickly, it puts the opposition under pressure and gives your bowlers longer to dismiss them. This was effective against India (but one test only), South Africa, Pakistan, Ireland and New Zealand (less so second time).

The flaw in this approach is equally obvious, and Australia spotted how to exploit it: whilst fielding, keep calm and wait for England’s batsmen to get themselves out; then bat for a long time, scoring more runs at a slower rate, and blunt England’s bowlers through lack of rest.

Believing your own publicity is a recurrent flaw

Both sides appear to have entered this series complacently believing their own PR. Having just won the World Test Championship, Australia opted for a defensive strategy, assuming that their magnificent bowling unit could not fail to pick up easy wickets, and their superb batting unit could not fail to accumulate the required runs. Having bludgeoned a series of opponents with shock and awe, England promptly leapt into the trap, charged the enemy cannon and threw away the Ashes through reckless swinging, as if they were paying rent by the minute for their use of the crease.

Australia stuck by their plan, yet muffed its execution towards the end. Brisker batting in their first innings at the Oval would have built a longer lead, allowing them to repeat their run chase in the equally rain-affected Edgbaston Test. As captain, Pat Cummins seemed to lose his head over his field placings, a mistake it is unlikely Steve Smith would have made. Had their best spinner been available, this might not have mattered — but Cummins should have adapted.

In contrast (although they would never admit it) England modified crude “Bazball”. Plan A was typified by a couple of stumpings, Root at Edgbaston and Bairstow at Lord’s. Both were bloody careless, suggesting someone whose mind lacked focus. Together, they cost us the Ashes. From the Third Test, Plan B applied. After an initial flurry, most batsmen settled down and milked a scattered field. They scored just as many runs, were just as entertaining — and they won.

Believing your own publicity is a recurrent flaw. One of the worst things that ever happened to English cricket was Ian Botham’s awe-inspiring innings at Headingley in 1981. It fostered the lie that a sufficient effort of will by one talented cricketer could always snatch victory, camouflaging deep-seated weaknesses that led to a decade of irrelevance on the world stage after 1989.

For all the records that have been broken in the last twelve months, it is not obvious that English cricket has been fixed. Why, when injury to Jack Leach ruled him out of the series, did England have to summon a spinner from retirement? Why is the ideal No.3 for England a man who bats at No.4 for Surrey? If only we had, say, 18 domestic teams from which to select a decent squad …

The 2023 Ashes was a Battle of Jutland, not Trafalgar. Like Admiral Jellicoe before him, Cummins avoided losing the war in an afternoon. His opponent might claim bragging rights, but the result is still a strategic victory for Australia.

An air of under-performance hangs over both teams. A 2-2 draw is a fair outcome for a series which either side could — should — have won 4-0. Is “Bazball” entertaining? Of course. Will it have inspired someone to take up the game? Probably. Has it transformed English cricket? Not yet.

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