Smith’s glasses in the Manchester celebration was the only talking point in the build up to the fifth Test ©Getty
“Oh yeah, but this is the Ashes mate.”
It’s the rhetoric you hear a lot when England are playing Australia in a Test series. And more so when there’s an attempt to draw parallels between the Ashes and any other Test series of renown, even if they include either England or Australia. There is the Ashes and then the rest, you’re told repeatedly, whether it’s to do with significance of performance and result, the worth of performance and result or place in cricket history of performance and result.
There’s of course no denying the history or the prestige that comes with the Ashes. No wonder the battles between the two oldest rivals in the sport generate great interest around the cricketing world. But at times the insular nature of how the urn is viewed in both nations can make the notion of the Ashes seem a tad whimsical in the greater scheme of all things cricket. And it’s never been more evident than in the build-up to the final Test at The Oval.
Here we are poised at 2-1 with Australia having not won a series on English soil in 18 years. In any other context or contest involving other teams, the next five days at The Oval would have been considered a fitting finale to what’s been an overwhelmingly exciting summer for cricket in England.
For, if Joe Root and his team can pull one back here in the twilight of the season, they’d have not only defended their increasingly proud home record against the arch enemy but also ensured Australia’s barren run in England would extend beyond two decades. That would mean England finish with the bragging rights if they win at The Oval right? Well not quite. This is the Ashes mate, and here 2-2 is the same as 2-1 or 3-1, once the urn has left the building. And it most certainly has.
You could sense it from the moment Josh Hazlewood trapped Craig Overton in front late on Day 5 in Manchester. This sense of deflation around England. This sense of what has been a sensationally entertaining series losing its fizz instantaneously; an anticlimactic end to what seemed poised to be an epic. The Ashes were gone. The Ashes had been spurned. Or like Root said in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, “The Ashes aren’t coming home.”
To their credit the two teams have said all the right things in the lead-up to this Test and not been sucked into the “dead rubber” feel that exists all around the periphery of the match. But you expect them not to. Justin Langer has said his team still have unfinished business. Tim Paine has called this the grand final while Root has said his team haven’t lost anything yet. Perhaps they all mean it too, especially since they’ve collectively dismissed the possibility of there ever being a dead rubber when England face Australia.
Why is it then that everyone else in England feels that Australia have already finished their business, the final Test is just another chance for them to humiliate the hosts more and that Root and his team have already lost what had to be lost. It’s probably because this is the Ashes mate.
If it was any other team on tour in England with the scoreline as it is, you’d imagine there being a lot of intrigue and interest on the cricketing side of things – the pitch, selection matters on both sides and even batting-orders and bowling combinations. But instead, for the record, the standout news between the fourth and fifth Tests has been the controversy over which bespectacled cricketer Steve Smith was imitating while having the glasses on during Australia’s raucous celebration at Old Trafford on Sunday (September 8).
Now, about that celebration. We’ve seen the videos. We’ve seen the images. Some of us were even there that late evening to see the Australians celebrate retaining the Ashes with unabashed fervour. But Langer has since low-browed the intensity of the celebration by giving it a lowly 2/10 rating – ironically on the same day that Trevor Bayliss underplayed his coaching tenure with England with a 5/10. Though this is not to say that Australia won’t come all guns blazing at The Oval, you could sense a huge feeling of ultimate accomplishment with the way the Aussies sang, danced and jumped around in Manchester.
Not to forget his revelation two days later, about Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison dropping him a congratulatory text post the Manchester win. If Australia haven’t yet completed their mission, did the PM just pull the trigger on passing on his wishes a bit prematurely? And if England do come back and square the series, does that compare with Mushfiqur Rahim celebrating a bit too soon during that famous World T20 encounter against India? The comparison can’t hold true of course because this is the Ashes mate.
Again it’s not necessary that the players and those on the outside feel the same about the significance of the final Test. We will find out in five days’ time in the way the Aussies react to the eventual result whether Paine’s mission to England was simply defending the urn or actually beating England in England after four consecutive series defeats. You wonder what Paine’s legacy would be as captain in case England win here. The man who retained the Ashes or the man who was so near yet so far from reversing a poor record for the Australian team in their enemy’s lair?
Game face on: Can Root & Co. force the first Ashes draw since 1972? ©Getty
For most around England though, the next five days couldn’t pass on quicker, considering the Ashes are anyway gone. There have already been reports of home fans abandoning their tickets, which have been at a premium throughout the series till now. Even Root has suddenly started talking about “World Test championship points” for the first time in the series despite them having been on offer from the first Test in Edgbaston. On that note, how many in England or Australia you think would know or care where the two teams stand in the Test Championship table? And can we at least get excited about the prospect of an Ashes series ending in a draw for the first time since 1972? That’s history right there.
Of course, Australia could make it easy for all concerned by just winning at The Oval. It’ll if anything provide the kind of closure that all of us can get on board with. But the fact is even if they lose here though, Paine will still be on the podium by himself come Day 5, holding the crystal urn aloft, while Root and his team stand with shrugged shoulders and with looks of despair writ large on their faces. This despite Australia having not won anything technically speaking. But this is the Ashes mate. The Ashes after all can never be shared.
Steve Waugh did say when asked at the start of the series to explain the significance of the Ashes to a neutral viewer, “I can’t tell you why it’s the greatest series, but it just is.” Maybe we should have just listened to him.