The script might have had all this unfolding before 100,000 at the might MCG, or perhaps in a cliffhanger at the SCG. Instead, one of the great triumphs of Australian cricket came before a few thousand people at the WACA Ground, and long before anyone could have imagined it as Australia slumped to a 3-0 defeat in England earlier this year. But the script is unimportant now.
Australian cricket was thought to be a basket case just a few months ago. Now the Australians have won back the auld urn in a stunning performance.
It was a dramatic day in Perth, for England is a fine cricket team, albeit having underperformed in this series, failing to react to Australia’s planning or handle Mitchell Johnson’s pace. England fought, and Ben Stokes would not yield in just his second Test match. If nothing else, the tourists have found a player there.
The Australians had to chip away at the dam wall in the absence of appropriate explosives. Stokes and Matt Prior negotiated the first hour with only momentary incidents, and the cracks in the WACA pitch provided only occasional issues. Once, Ryan Harris hit a crack with a straight ball and both he and Stokes laughed as it speared off toward first slip.
[Darren Lehmann’s] influence has been immense, and given his record, not necessarily a surprise. The shock is that he managed it so quickly.
It had moved 65 cm off its line by the time it passed the stumps; Stokes missed it by a couple of bat-widths and here was the nub of that situation. Any ball moving so far would be unlikely to take a wicket. The English batsmen knew it and took a pragmatic approach that worked for them.
The WACA is on death row as a Test venue and it is worth pondering what might have happened if a batsman had been seriously injured on that pitch. Or how we would have felt if the umpires had decided it was too dangerous to play on, as has happened before in Test cricket.
So at 5/296 the pessimists among Australian fans would have been murmuring and shifting in their seats. England was just 208 runs away from a monumental victory with two legitimate batsmen at the crease; little wonder that Clarke admitted to a fitful sleep on Monday.
Then Prior fanned at Johnson’s slider and was caught behind by Brad Haddin, and after lunch the dam wall gave way. Stokes had posted his maiden Test century when he top-edged a hook down to the boundary, a profoundly impressive performance from the 22-year-old, notable not just for its shotmaking but for its guts, for the tide was plainly against his team. With Joe Root and Stokes, England have the embryo of a good side for the future, even if the current group has been badly beaten here.
Then Stokes swept at Nathan Lyon, extracting big turn from the tinder dry strip, and feathered to body then on to Haddin’s gloves. Graeme Swann nicked Lyon to bat-pad and Tim Bresnan half-drove Johnson to a tumbling Chris Rogers at deep mid-off. Rogers is 36 and no Usain Bolt but he was not missing this chance. Australia’s better fielding has been a big factor in the series.
Appropriately Johnson had the ball for the climax, and Jimmy Anderson again flinched at the ball delivered at his right armpit. George Bailey tumbled forward to take the looping catch and the series was over.
The Ashes had been in English hands for 1577 days, since 23 August, 2009, when England claimed them back at home. It is a period of time that reflects the fact that England was better in almost every way, in particular batting. But the signs were there in the northern summer of this year, and now Australia is better-organised, finding the best from bit-part players.
For this, they have to thank Darren Lehmann. His influence has been immense, and given his record, not necessarily a surprise. The shock is that he managed it so quickly.