After it was all over there were smiles rather than jubilation at the Oval and a few sighs of relief – from both sides. Australia were content, having retained the Ashes; England could take comfort from what was almost a copybook victory in the final Test, which allowed them to square the series. The England side might have crumpled after the defeat at Old Trafford but they came back strongly with Joe Root overseeing everything adroitly in the field; the Australians needed more than 103 runs in the match from Steve Smith.
Amid the post-match ceremonies the Specsavers hoarding was a wee bit one-eyed, highlighting the drawn series rather than the destiny of the Ashes. Then the players, many of whom had every reason to be exhausted after a wonderful, relentless summer, shook hands warmly and mingled in the dressing rooms – just as they should after 23 days of raw, flawed, riveting Test cricket.
There must be plenty of mutual respect there. How could one not admire the ugly brilliance of Smith, who scored all those runs on surfaces that nearly all the other batsmen found so treacherous? Or Pat Cummins, the leading wicket-taker, who pounded in match after match, never flagging, always fast and on target, for his 29 wickets? Or Marnus Labuschagne, bouncing back to his feet after a knock on the head, to score crucial runs in a series where he had seemed destined to be a bystander? Or Ben Stokes, now the ultimate team man, who delivered the most stunning individual performance of the series, or any series? Or the glittering impact of Jofra Archer, the bloody-mindedness and resolution of Stuart Broad, Josh Hazlewood and Rory Burns? Or the recall of Jack Leach – for all the hype it is the quality of his bowling that bodes well for the future.
For some, primarily all the opening batsmen except Burns, it will seem like a car-crash series. Cameron Bancroft, Marcus Harris and Jason Roy might wonder whether they will ever reappear in this format; David Warner will, though when he does he will be relieved if he finds someone other than Broad running towards him. The curmudgeons can complain about the quality of the play throughout – though this could never legitimately apply to the bowling – but the simple fact is that those who had access to this series revelled in the contest and characters.
Leach spoke after the match – he is becoming a go-to interviewee for the ECB’s media man, reliable without being too bland or cliché-ridden. At the start of the series he would not have expected to play many games. Now people recognise him in the street – and not only in Taunton. “The support for me has been something I didn’t think I’d ever experience,” he said. “Maybe it’s because of my batting but I think it’s mainly because I’m bald and have glasses. The way the public have warmed to me is something very special and I don’t take it for granted. I can’t thank them enough. When I was batting they were singing ‘Stand Up If You Love Jack Leach’. I just thought: ‘What’s going on?’ Nathan Lyon came over and said to me: ‘How many beers do you owe me [for the missed run-out at Headingley]?’ I think I owe him a lot.”
Leach was among the minglers after the game. “He [Smith] came to me to let me know that it wasn’t about me [when Smith donned some odd-looking glasses during the Australian celebrations at Old Trafford]. I didn’t know whether it was or wasn’t. I was kind of hoping it was and thought it was a good laugh. I was very embarrassed after Headingley when the video came out of me doing my one. I think I deserved that, to be honest. That’s why we got a picture together after the game with him wearing my glasses!”
Leach may be the only England player with an active role left this season. He would like to play in Somerset’s last match of the season “if selected” against Essex at Taunton, which may well decide the destination of the Championship pennant. The rest of them can put their feet up and ponder an amazing summer.
A stunning, fortuitous World Cup victory and a drawn Ashes series is not the perfect outcome – that might have warranted an honorary knighthood for Trevor Bayliss and we do not want any more wrangling of that sort. But it is not a bad result. Among those at the top of the ECB your correspondent may be regarded as a bit of a curmudgeon for his curious lack of enthusiasm for a 2020 summer, in which two short-form competitions dominate in June, July and August. Yet any sacrifices for a World Cup win, even if they included a diminished Ashes campaign, were worthwhile.
Of course it was never a straightforward, binary choice between the World Cup and the Ashes. But nothing was spared in pursuit of that victory in July; the Australians, five-times World Cup winners, were a bit cagier. England’s World Cup winners were not at their best at the start of the Ashes series and the team played their best cricket at the Oval. But the stark fact is that England have a far stronger, more settled ODI team than Test side, which still possesses several frailties (most obviously they do not score enough runs). Advancing that Test side will now be the challenge for Bayliss’s successor. Whoever it may be has a big hat to fill.