Nonetheless, the Ashes were hotly contested as the Australian batting couldn’t find consistency and the bowlers, unbalanced by the new wave of slogging, weren’t quite at their brilliant best. Australia retained the Ashes because they earned a lead and England couldn’t run them down. No matter how England want to frame the result, Pat Cummins’ men found a way to get the job done when the crucial moments arrived.
In some ways, the 50-over World Cup reflected the struggles of the Ashes. There was to be no rampaging race to the finals, sweeping teams aside with relentless high scoring, quality seam bowling and various spinners who could operate on all surfaces. A lethargic start almost cost them a semi-final spot and, arguably, the most remarkable innings of all time – with deference to Gary Sobers’ 254 at the MCG and Don Bradman’s 334 at Headingly – let’s say the most remarkable white-ball innings of all time, got them past Afghanistan and a place in the top four. One easy catch put down by Afghanistan was probably the difference between World Cup glory and a sombre flight home accompanied by career-ending postmortems.
Glenn Maxwell’s double ton (from 128 balls would you believe) on one leg, and occasionally no legs and one arm, still defies description. Cummins’ 12 off 68 made the pendulum swing all the way back. Their unbeaten 202-run partnership was beyond fiction. The semi-final and final were simply flawless team cricket made fluid by Cummins’ leadership, but lacking the domination of Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. The bowlers were the most potent ingredient in Australia’s winning recipe, and in a subcontinental World Cup, that is not historically the case.
Back at home a soft Test summer was predicted with the eclectic Pakistanis sharing the series with an understrength, underperforming and unknown West Indies. But Australia met strong resistance. If not for some poor catching (do strong teams elicit poor fielding from their opponents?) by Pakistan, a 3-0 result may have turned to a 1-2 series loss for the home side. Pakistan were in each Test match as Australia’s batting mainstays failed to stay; so much so that a leading player was enlisted to open the batting.
The quality of the four principal bowlers continued to keep Australia in every contest and their catching was excellent. The traditional cricket (red ball) maxim was “batters save matches; bowlers win them”, and, although scoring rates continue to rise, taking wickets is absolute and Cummins, Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon are absolutely the best.
The joy of watching this iteration of the national team comes with uncertainty, and with the fact that they can get into trouble and find a way home. Head is the recent epitome with his white-ball strike rate and his Test match stroke-making followed by a golden pair in Brisbane. Is this unpredictability to become the norm of the Australian batting line-up and does it really matter how they get it done if they keep on winning?
Smith is reinventing, Labuschagne is in a flat spot and Cameron Green is refining his international balance and Mitchell Marsh has had a mixed Australian summer. The bowlers have shown some remarkable resilience in all competitions, but it is time for the understudies to get some stage time.
“It’s better to be lucky than good,” the old line goes. Australia have had their share of luck supplied by the other teams dropping catches and getting some strategies wrong, but an attitude of “it’s not over until it’s over” and contributions from the whole squad at key moments has sustained them through all formats and tournaments.
The Ashes retention was all the more delicious for the individual struggles, the uncertainty of the result and, of course, England’s agony and whinging. The World Cup was sports entertainment par excellence because of the unpredictability. Pakistan and the Windies refused to be predictable, and refreshed the fans’ love of Test cricket here and in their own countries.
Cummins’ troops haven’t been perfect, but they did win so many of the watershed moments that lead to victories. Whether they can continue to stock the trophy cabinet without serious renewal of personnel is the next big question as the caravan totters off to the next challenge.
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