England’s triumph in the Ashes is remarkable for how unremarkable it seems when stripped of the bells and whistles. In contrast to the series of 2005, which was a battle rich in quality between two formidable sides, this was a modest affair. What is clear is that Australia — deposed from the top spot for the first time since the current ICC rankings were introduced in 2003 — has descended from its lofty heights. England hasn’t had pretensions of being a world-beating team for a while now. What was expected to be a hard-fought contest between two good sides turned out to be just that. England won 2-1 because, as a team, it handled the defining passages of play better —traditionally an Aussie strength. The series statistics speak for themselves: six of the seven leading run-scorers and the three top wicket-takers were Australian, but England’s sum was greater than its parts. Crucially, the home team managed to do just enough when needed. Andrew Strauss, the England captain, put this felicitously: “When we were bad, we were very, very bad. When we were good, we were good enough.” The understated Strauss deserves high praise. England appeared fractured from within after the men in charge, Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores, fell out. Strauss and Andy Flower, the new coach, began the process of resurrection, which, despite the victory over Australia, has been anything but straightforward.
Strauss has undergone a resurrection himself. He rediscovered his batting after a wretched 2007. It was his calm solidity at the top of the order that enabled England to set the agenda: in three out of five Tests, it gained the first-innings lead. Australian teams have a fondness for attacking the opposition’s leader, thus debilitating the side; Strauss not merely withstood Australia, he emboldened England with his grace under fire. His counterpart, Ricky Ponting, had a difficult series. Australia has been in transition since the retirements of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist and, more recently, Matthew Hayden. It has required all of Ponting’s considerable powers to handle the transition. While his batting has often stepped up, his leadership has been no more than adequate. A captain is believed to be only as good as his team. The great captains, however, get their sides to play above themselves, and Ponting hasn’t shown this quality. Acceptance that it is no longer alone at the top, but one among four or five closely matched teams, will help the transition. For Australia has appeared in denial at times. England, on the other hand, has much to be pleased with — not least the arrival of a genuine talent in Jonathan Trott. But the country bids farewell to the talismanic Andrew Flinotff. Perhaps the gifted all-rounder’s departure will introduce just the note of sobriety needed at a time when men are apt to lose their heads.