With all the rugby, football and cycling going on over the last couple of months, there was one sport that was grabbing my attention more the usual: the cricket. The reason for this was clear: the Ashes was on and taking place in England.
The first Test at Edgbaston saw England go on the back foot, losing star bowler James Anderson after just 4 overs on the way to a 251 run loss. The weather proved crucial at Lord’s as England ran out of time to collect the wickets they needed, resulting in the 2nd Test ending as a draw. In the 3rd Test, an inspired performance from Ben Stokes snatched a 1 wicket victory from the jaws of defeat and left hopes of an England series victory alive. This was soon ended, however, by a 185 run victory for Australia in the 4th test at Old Trafford that confirmed they would retain the Ashes. Perhaps they partied too hard following that result, as they struggled at the Oval, with England winning the final Test by 135 runs to draw the series 2-2.
While some players had ludicrously impressive performances throughout the series, there were others who – to put it kindly – stunk! Today, I will be looking back at the biggest winners and losers from the series.
Steve Smith: Making his return to Test cricket following a ban for his part in the ball-tampering scandal, Steve Smith was always set for some rough treatment from the partisan home crowds. Such were his performances in the series though, that when he walked off in the final innings for a series-worst 23 runs, he was treated to cheers and applause. How did he do this? He became the star of the series. His 774 runs in just 7 innings has already put him as the top run scorer in Test cricket this year despite starting over half a year after most players. Try as they might, England were unable to get him out when it mattered, while he also made a number of key catches in the slips to play a key role in retaining the Ashes.
England’s opening bowlers: Losing star bowler James Anderson after just 4 overs in the first Test could have derailed the series for England before it had barely begun. However, England recovered well. Suddenly thrust into the leadership role within the attack, Stuart Broad excelled with 23 wickets (best in the team) at an average of 26.65 runs per wicket. In place of Anderson, Jofra Archer came into the Test team for his debut and showed just how good he can be. His pace and bouncers had batsmen rattled and he finished the series with just 1 wicket less than Broad for an average of 20.27, the best average of any England bowler in the series. With Anderson, Broad and Archer all huge dangers, England have the flexibility moving forward to appropriately rest the ageing Anderson and Broad while remaining dangerous. And the best part… Jofra should only get better with more experience!
Ben Stokes: Already a national hero this summer for his role in England’s Cricket World Cup victory, Ben Stokes produced an innings that will go down in legends during the 3rd Test at Headingley. With England chasing a 2nd innings score of 358 following a 67-run disaster in the 1st innings. With everyone getting out around him, Stokes did what his teammates were finding impossible to do, digging in and giving England fans the slightest of hope. When 11th man Jack Leach came in with the score at 286-9, things looked to be over, but Stokes went from staying in to smashing the ball wherever he could, eventually hitting a boundary to win England the Test with a score of 135*. Expanding on this match, Stokes was the highest scoring batsman for England (441 runs) and contributed 15 wickets with his bowling despite a shoulder injury making him a specialist batsman in the last Test. After the summer he’s had, he’s in with a great shot of winning Sports Personality of the Year.
Jack Leach: While Stokes got the glory from the 3rd Test, that match also helped to make Jack Leach a cult figure. After a 92-run stand as nightwatchman against Ireland, Leach continued to show his ability to get in and stay in as a tail-ender even against an elite bowling attack, becoming a cult figure with his repeated cleaning of his glasses. Though his own run totals were limited, it gave England a chance when they get towards their final few batsmen, while he also brought some danger to the bowling attack with 12 wickets for an average of 25.83. It looks like he’s done enough to hold his spot even if Moeen Ali returns to form.
Rory Burns: So things didn’t really go well for either set of openers in this series, but Rory Burns was head, shoulders, knees and toes above the rest of them. He finished the series with 390 runs, second only to Ben Stokes in the England team and was the only England batsman other than Stokes to hit a century, with a high score of 133. The opening pair has been a real issue for England for years. It feels like Burns has done enough to cement himself as one of the pair.
Marnus Labuschagne: Steve Smith’s concussion that saw him miss the 2nd innings of the 2nd Test and the entire 3rd Test could have been critical, but instead it brought his replacement Marnus Labuschagne to the fore. Despite taking a Jofra Archer bouncer to the head almost immediately, he went on to become Smith’s doppelgänger, reaching 50 in each of his first 4 innings. Smith’s return saw him stay in the order and be promoted to 3rd on the order. Creating a long-standing partnership as inevitable as death and taxes, it looks like he and Smith will be a fixture in the team for them to build their batting line-up around.
Aussie bowling: While the England batting was often poor, they were not helped by the best bowling attack in the world being on form. Pat Cummins was the bowler of the series, taking 29 wickets over the 5 Tests for an average of 19.62. Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon both contributed 20 wickets. Even maligned bowler Mitchell Marsh managed to take 7 wickets in just 1 Test. Such was the quality of the options available, Mitchell Starc was only involved in 1 Test. While England’s poor batting certainly helped, don’t expect them tobe the last team to struggle under the Australian onslaught
David Warner: Steve Smith wasn’t the only one making his return to Test cricket following the ball-tampering scandal, as Steve Smith was part of Australia’s opening pair for all 5 Tests. Unfortunately for Warner, the similarities ended there as he finished the series with a disappointing 95 runs total. While that is already the worst total for an opener batting in 10 innings, what makes things even worse is that 61 of those runs came in a single innings, while he became the first opening batsman in any Test series ever, to be out for eight single digit scores… ouch!
Jason Roy: There were plenty of questions over the selection of Jason Roy as an opener in this series. Clearly a talented player, he is not currently cut out for opening in Test cricket. Over 4 Tests, Roy totalled just 110 runs with a high score of 31. He looked a bit more comfortable when moved down the order for the 4th Test, but still needed to work on batting to stay in. He made way for Sam Curran for the final Test as Stokes was playing as a specialist batsman, but will hopefully be given another chance around the number 5 spot and against a more forgiving bowling attack.
Joe Root: Joe Root is a fantastic player and arguably England’s best Test batsman. Unfortunately, the pressures of captaincy appear to be having an effect on his batting, where he is struggling to keep his average up. Add in some questionable selection decisions and use of his bowlers through the tournament and a number of costly drops, and things don’t look good for him. The fact that England came away with a drawn series and looked good value for the win had it not been for the reduced overs in the 2nd Test – despite being arguably the second-best team in the series – has potentially just saved Root from losing the captaincy.
Tim Paine: He may have just retained the Ashes, but this was not a good series for the Australian captain. There were a number of questionable selection decisions (the final Test looked to have a dream wicket for Mitchell Starc) and tactical decisions (his decision on winning the toss at the final Test was proved horribly wrong). His batting wasn’t great, and he had a number of costly drops as wicketkeeper. But by far the worst facet of his series was his use of the DRS reviews. It got to the point that it felt like every decision he made relating to DRS was the wrong one! Retaining the Ashes – and how recent Smith has returned to the Test squad – may help him keep hold of the Ashes for a little longer, but if feels like his days are numbered.