/ 24 July 2023

The Ashes: An English sacrifice to the Test cricket gods

England V Australia Lv= Insurance Ashes 4th Test Match: Day Four
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JULY 22: England huddle ahead of taking the field on day four of LV= Insurance Ashes 4th Test Match between England and Australia at Emirates Old Trafford on July 22, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Australia have retained The Ashes. 

“Don’t bury the lead,” is the golden rule that gets taught in journalism school. 

Australia won the previous series, at home, 18 months ago. Unrelenting rain in the English city of Manchester yesterday meant that the fourth Test of this year’s Ashes was a draw meaning, in turn, that with just one test to play, Australia’s 2-1 lead cannot be overtaken by England. 

So, indeed, Australia have retained the Ashes. 

Since the first Test began 38 days ago, this year’s edition of the Ashes has provided gripping entertainment for neutrals and a white-knuckle roller coaster of a ride for supporters of both sides. 

So, not even the most hard-nosed, shark-eyed Aussie would argue that this tells even one percent of “the story”. But where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning — Friday, 16 June and “that declaration”? 

As the rain poured down yesterday, so old Johnny Hindsight was wheeled in to help fill the analytical airwaves as England’s chances of regaining the little urn were washed away by the Mancunian weather. 

If Ben Stokes had not declared England’s first innings on day one of the series, Hindsight opined, England would almost certainly not have lost the first Test. Hence, they would now be 1-1 and still in with a very good chance of winning the final match at the Oval, which starts in just four days’ time — with the Australians wilting, having in most cases played not just the four Ashes Tests in five weeks, but five Tests in six, including the World Test Championship final against India the week before the Ashes.

But this completely misses the point. Not quite JFK or 9/11 territory, or even Stokes himself scoring 135 to beat Australia at Headingley in the last home series Ashes in 2019, but still a “where were you?” moment because it will probably continue to be the subject of intense debate for many years to come and because it was simply so unexpected. 

For an English cricket fan whose formative years were scarred by the chaotic, clueless and gutless character of the cricket played by the national team during the era that spanned much of the 18 years between England’s Ashes series win in Australia and regaining it in 2005, Stokes’s declaration was absolutely thrilling. 

Notably, the South Africans with whom I happened to be sharing the moment — fellow members of the famous Spin Doctors Cricket Club, at our end-of-season celebration at the Vasco tavern in Cape Town — were less enamoured of Stokes’s decision, which defied cricketing logic. 

Conventional thinking had it that England should have batted on as long as possible to grind Australia into the ground, especially with their best player, Joe Root, still at the wicket with over 100 to his name. 

But this is not Stokes’s way — he goes against the grain of business-as-usual thinking. He wanted to impose himself and his team against the newly crowned world champions. 

We are not afraid of you, was the message; 393 is enough to win the game from here. 

And, he was so nearly right. Australia were eight down when they got over the line shortly before the end of the last day’s play. Just two more balls …

Had England caught their catches, they would have won, and Stokes’s decision would have been vindicated. 

Interestingly, some of my South African pals not only thought it was an ill-advised decision but also somehow “disrespectful” of the Australians. 

Putting aside surprise at this display of concern for the gentle sensibilities of the Australian cricket team, what I think the criticism — which quickly spawned into a more wide-ranging attack on the principles and practice of so-called “Bazball” — revealed was an envy of how Stokes’s side play so positively and attackingly, and with so little fear, characteristics which, alas, have been painfully absent as a sorry sequence of Proteas sides have choked at crucial moments in vital games over more than two decades. 

Coincidentally, and pertinently, the session at the Vasco being more than just a piss-up because, indeed, the Spin Doctors are more than “just” an amateur cricket club, the evening moved on to a pre-arranged discussion on “how to save Test cricket”. 

We had just witnessed the answer to this existential sporting question, I ventured to suggest: England’s five-runs-an-over opening salvo of 393, followed by their captain’s dazzling declaration. 

Hyperbolic, for sure. But nothing that has followed in the 17 days of cricket that have rumbustiously unfolded since has led me to retreat from this view. 

If Test cricket is to have even a half chance of surviving the onslaught from the T20 franchise and international cricket, then it is going to have to offer its own recipe for dash, verve and swerve.

Which brings me to the second moment of this Ashes that took my breath away. Root. Start of day four of that first Test at Edgbaston. Game beautifully poised; could go either way. A critical first session of the day awaits. Grey clouds overhead. Scott Boland comes in to bowl and Root tries to reverse ramp him for six. 

As it happens, Root misses. The ball also misses the stumps. Next over, he tries it again. Six. Then four. Astonishing!   

The first shot — the one he missed — astounded me, and drew me to my feet. I’m not sure what came out of my mouth but, like “that declaration”, it was thrilling. 

This was not the whimpering England of the 1990s, with the dismal batting collapses, the forlorn bowling, with what talent they possessed suffocated by excess caution and a deep fear of failure. 

This was something new, something transformational — and not just for English cricket, but for the game of cricket. 

And so, when Stokes talks about the importance of building a “legacy side”, cynics will sneer. But, if indeed Test cricket is still around and flourishing in 50 or a 100 years’ time, it will probably be because of the flamboyance and flare that Stokes’s England has injected into the arm of the game. 

Gnarly Aussies, and apparently most South Africans, will point to the scoreboard — 2-1 to Australia. Yes, they’ve retained the Ashes. I get it. But, I also get that how you play really does matter more now — if, that is, you can take a step back and see the big, long-term picture. 

And so this is how it is that this ultimate one-nil to The Arsenal pragmatist has come to appreciate Stokes and his side’s buccaneering cricket to the point that I now believe — as I think is Stokes’s creed — that it’s better to play this way and lose than to win in a way that does not entertain thrillingly and bring the crowds and the viewers to their feet.  

This is what the Ashes 2023 means. Australia retained the Ashes, but Bazball can save Test cricket. That’s the real story.