It is safe to say that the current Ashes series will not be remembered as a classic of the genre. We follow sport for the contest, and the total lack of one is the reason there is so much consternation from wider English cricket quarters, even as the team tries to apply blinkers to get through two more Tests. There have been plenty of one-sided Ashes series, and most teams struggle away from home, but this has been another level.
When the tiny trophy has been played for in England in modern times, the contests have been closer. There is 2005, of course, the gold standard, but 2009 was also a 2-1 result that came down to the fifth match. The 3-0 scoreline in 2013 looks skewed, but Australia had two wins rained off on the last day, and came close to winning two other matches. The third and fourth Tests in 2015 were wipeouts for the visitors but they did still make the scoreline 3-2. And the 2019 series was a delightfully absurd carnival ride, with Steve Smith at Edgbaston, Ben Stokes at Headingley and Jofra Archer at Lord’s.
Australia’s home wins in that period have not been remotely close, but have still had something to recommend them. The 2006/07 whitewash was a champion team roaring back after being stung by defeat. In 2013/14 the thrill of Mitchell Johnson’s lightning summer made another whitewash compelling viewing. Even in 2017/18 we saw Smith operating at the peak of his considerable powers. The current series has had no champion shaping it, just an English team that has failed to compete from the first ball.
So in terms of what we’ll remember in years to come, foremost will have to be that final hour of the second day in Melbourne, when Australia had finished collecting a modest lead of 82 runs, then tore England open to the tune of four wickets for 31 runs by stumps.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground is a strange beast. In its vastness, it can host 100 people at a Sheffield Shield match and feel like an abandoned city of the future. It can host 20,000 people for a football match and swallow the lot, still feeling empty. The stands are so high, the seats so far back, that during a quiet day of cricket it can sound like little more than a burble. Or it can come to life, stirring like Smaug on top of his gold, and breathe fire.
The data analysts at CricViz track a measure of how dangerous certain bowling is, tracking lines and lengths and swing and seam and speed to calculate the average likelihood of that ball taking a wicket. According to them, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins jointly bowled the most threatening opening spell since records began.
Cummins has a laconic walk to his mark, legs bowed and gait rolling like has just hitched his horse outside. When he turns, he glides in, the whip of his arm and the work of his wrist angling the ball in towards a right-hander before cutting it away from the bat. The movement isn’t much, but that is his comparative strength. Some bowlers spend their careers beating the edge. Cummins takes it.
In contrast, Starc bounds in like a cartoon tiger. He is all limbs and leap, even before the delivery stride. Out of this run he slings the ball down from a low release. This can make his line a lottery, his left-arm angle taking the ball either well wide of off stump or down the leg side. In this series he has spent more time close to the off stump, just wide enough to leave but close enough that players keep being drawn into reaching for it.
Ten overs, two wickets, and a thick current of adrenaline buzzing through the place. Starc coming within millimetres of a hat-trick, so nearly completing it against the world’s form player in Joe Root. The noise already wild. And then comes Scott Boland, the local player on debut, first forcing England to employ a nightwatchman, then blasting him out in two balls.
A player being bowled is cricket’s most visceral spectator experience. From a distant vantage, a catch behind looks no different to the ball beating the edge. A dismissal leg before wicket looks the same as one not given. When crowds cheer those moments they are cheering an extrapolation of what has happened, not what they know themselves. But when the bails fly, they know. The visual explosion mirrors the raising of voices and hands. And there is the sound, that delicious clunk that can be heard in the most distant seat.
That was the moment, the way every person in the ground lit up. Jack Leach left the ball, seeing its line, trying to do the right thing. Instead his choice left him standing still with his bat raised high, front foot forward, not interfering with anyone’s view, underlining just how comprehensively he had been done in. Batting for a final hour was always going to be tough, but the hour became series-sealing drama. We may not be replete with great moments in this series, but that one deserves to last.