As the dust settles following on from the final day’s play at the Oval, I have found myself with a void in my life. What a summer of test cricket it has been. As the men’s Ashes series developed, it became more of a culture war than a test match series. The contrasting styles of the two teams meant that this was almost a battle for cricket’s soul – Bazball vs the establishment, the spirit of cricket vs win at all costs. But in between the caricatures and the hyperbole, there was some excellent cricket played. In this article, I’m going to try and pick the bones out of the series, highlighting some key points which have been missed among the shouting.
Have England solved their opening dilemma?
A saga that has gone on longer than Brexit, and seemingly more difficult to solve, has been the question of who will open the batting for England. First Andrew Strauss retired, leaving Alistair Cook with a revolving door of failed partners. Then Cook himself retired, leaving England with no established opener.
They tried dashers, with Jason Roy being drafted in to play the Matthew Hayden role. They tried blockers, with Dom Sibley sent in to play proper test cricket the old-fashioned way. They tried talented youngsters, Haseeb Hameed flattered to deceive with a couple of good scores before being dropped. They tried the old county pro, Rory Burns had some success, with his head dipping to the leg side, before being bowled round his legs by Michell Starc with the first ball of the last Ashes series in Australia.
But England have now found a partnership that seems to work. Much maligned last summer, Zak Crawley has looked the real deal this year and played one of the great Ashes innings, scoring 189 in the Old Trafford test. He averaged 53.33 with a strike rate of 88.72 against the best bowling attack in the world. Crawley used to be a feast or famine player, scoring single figures or 100. Now he has added consistent contributions between the electric hundreds, England have their most destructive opener since Marcus Trescothick.
Ben Duckett has a solid if not spectacular series and certainly was not found to be out of his depth. He averaged 35.66 across the series, with 2 half centuries. Duckett fell agonizingly of an Ashes century when dismissed for 98 at Lord’s. Duckett admitted that the bowling in the series was a step up from the usual standard he had faced to date in county cricket. He will be better for the experience and England look to have finally found an opening pair who can establish themselves for some time.
Quiet goodbyes don’t get the limelight at the Oval
All the talk at the end of the final test was about Stuart Broad riding off into the sunset with a 6 off his last ball with the bat and a match winning wicket with his last delivery as a bowler. But Stuart Broad isn’t the only one who will have played their last test in England in the final fame of the series.
On the Australian side, their opening partnership of Usman Khawaja and David Warner are unlikely ever to play on these shores again. Warner has already announced he would like to retire in front of his home crowd at the SCG this winter. Khawaja is now 36 years old and already in an unexpected career renaissance. Khawaja had previously struggled in England, but 1263 runs at an average of 49.6 means he can look back on this series with a lot of pride.
On the English side, speaking of unexpected career renaissance’s, Moeen Ali has announced his retirement from test cricket, having ridden to England’s rescue when Jack Leach suffered an injury on the eve of the Ashes. It was heartwarming to see Moeen Ali leaving the field next to Stuart Broad, as he had been an important part of England’s test team for a long time and deserved to bask in the glow of a warm send off. His return also gave him the opportunity to join an exclusive club, becoming one of only 16 players to reach 3000 test runs and 200 wickets. England will miss Moeen’s versatility and skill with the ball. His promotion to bat 3, protecting Harry Brook was crucial in England drawing the series.
Wood and Woakes turn the series for England
Chris Woakes transformed England when he returned to the team alongside Mark Wood. Having lost the second test and gone 2-0 down with 3 games to play, England were drinking in the last chance saloon. They turned to two tried and tested performers to get them out of a hole.
England’s bowling attack was in tatters at Lord’s. James Anderson was struggling for form, Ollie Robinson visibly lacked fitness and Moeen Ali injured with a cut finger. The inexperienced Josh Tongue provided some cause for optimism, but England needed to take a different direction. Wood and Woakes came in for the third test and took 33 wickets at an average of 19.03.
Woakes was England’s second leading wicket taker for the series, from just 3 games. Wood bowled with pace and accuracy. He changed the course of the game at Headingley, bowling one of the fastest spells in test cricket.
Woakes has often been a forgotten man in this generation of English cricket, playing second fiddle to Broad and Anderson. But with Broad’s retirement, England have a vacant position for an opening bowler. Woakes should be the person to fill it. If Wood can stay fit, which is a perennial question, England may have stumbled across a winning formula to navigate the immediate post Broad & Anderson future.
Test schedule means momentum will be lost
Across the summer, the England team have sounded like the “Blues Brothers” at times – on a mission from God. Stokes has stated that the way they play is about more than just winning or losing. It is about demonstrating the very best of what test cricket can be. It is about making sure people leave the ground feeling entertained, desperate to come back for more. This series has delivered on the entertainment stakes.
But a quick glance at the calendar shows the flaw in the plan. England’s next home men’s test match is 11 and ½ months away, starting on 10th July 2024. This summer’s Ashes series was the earliest ever, with August set aside for the ECB’s white elephant, the Hundred. No test cricket in the month of August, during the school holidays.
If the ECB is serious about implementing the findings of the ICEC report and opening the game to those from all backgrounds, then they need to give people test cricket at a time when they can actually go to watch it. My first test match was a free day 5 ticket to the 2001 Ashes. I saw Mark Butcher score his match winning 173 at Headingley. The game played during the school holidays and I was hooked for life. If Stokes and his team of test cricket evangelists stand any chance of being successful, they need to be playing test matches to win people over.