Ben Jones analyses the key ways Justin Langer’s side came out on top.
Australia have retained the Ashes. For the first time since 2001, the Australian Test side will return home with the urn in their possession. Victory in Manchester took them to an unassailable 2-1 lead with just the final match to go. So how did they do it?
STEVE SMITH’S DOMINANCE
The defining difference. Steve Smith has been so far ahead of everyone else in this series with the bat that it’s almost not worth assessing it, but nevertheless: he’s scored the most runs, faced the most balls, batted the most minutes, averaged the most, and played the fewest false shots.
His dominance over English attacks has reached historic levels. No player has won more Player of the Match awards against one team than Smith has against England. Only two players have scored more runs at a higher average against a single opposition (Sutcliffe and Bradman, in Ashes contests).
There is a conversation to be had, with the appropriate clarity and context, about how close Smith is to Bradman, about whether he has a claim on his crown. There will be opinions aplenty, but the fact that even some voices can fall on the pro-Smith side shows the weight of the talent England were up against this summer. They won one Test – when Smith was out. Australia without Smith are a flawed batting unit propped up by an elite attack – with him, they looked almost unbeatable.
In England, Australian seamers have rarely been inert. They have always had an inherent aggression and threat, but in this country they have struggled to make an impression on recent tours, lacking control and letting the games get away from them. Not this time. Their economy rate in this series was just 2.63rpo, the lowest they have managed since the 1970s. Their control has been excellent, particularly given the naturally attacking inclinations of the batsmen they’ve been facing.
The main reason for this has been Australia consistently resisting the temptation to bowl too full. The attraction when you come to England is to be too easily seduced by the lateral movement on offer, and for seamers to pitch up too close to the batsman, becoming floaty, and too easy to hit. Cummins and Hazlewood in particular have avoided this, leading the line for Australia to bowl 37% short balls, the most they’ve bowled in an away Ashes series from which that data is available.
There is an irony in this. In 2010/11, only the second overseas Ashes win of the 21st century, England dropped the series leading wicket-taker Steven Finn because he was leaking runs. Andrew Strauss spoke of the decision in assertive terms, with the confidence of a man with a plan and the willingness to make tough decisions in pursuit of its execution. If Australia do go on to the claim the series, then they’ll have taken a significant leaf out of the Strauss playbook.
Australia’s much-vaunted rotation policy for the seamers has exaggerated their assets, but fundamentally, they just have an excellent pack of bowlers. It doesn’t matter how fresh they are if you’re pitting Craig Overton and Pat Cummins against each other as first change.
What the depth has done however is allow Australia to be dominant in almost every area of the bowling battle.
It’s the sort of trite observation that gets trotted out by partisan observers, trying to hype or diminish achievements, but Australia really have had the worst of the conditions this summer. On average, they have been batting during periods when it was more difficult to do so; the overall PitchViz difficulty rating for Australian innings was 6.2/10, but for England, it was 5.8/10. A marginal difference, but a difference nonetheless.
It felt like the Headingley Test best encapsulated this, with Australia having to battle through the tough, rain-affected first day, before England managed to chase down 350+ as the pitch in Leeds flattened out significantly. On that occasion, the gulf in conditions was so great that England were able to take advantage, but across the series as a whole, Australia succeeded.
TOP CLASS CATCHING
Catches don’t always win matches, but Australia can thank their fielding prowess for a lot in this series. Barring the odd slip, they have taken their chances with aplomb – 82% of the chances which have came their way have been pouched, above the average for this form of that game and, crucially, higher than England’s percentage.
DOMINATING JOE ROOT
Ben Stokes may currently be the most feared of England’s batsmen, but Australia always celebrated Root’s wicket with the loudest roar. The fact that they have kept him so quiet has been hugely significant – Root has played eleven Test series of 4+ matches, and only once has he averaged less than the 30.87 he’s managed this series.
What’s more, they got him early. In the first 20 balls he faced in an innings, over this series, he played 29% false shots, the most early risk he’s ever displayed in a series. Never before has he been dismissed four times in his first 20 balls over a series. No touring team has targeted Root’s stumps as much as this Australia side since India in 2014, with 13% of the Aussie bowling projected to hit or clip. Root has a conversion issue, but Australia barely gave him chance to show it.
People take a surprising joy in deriding Root, perhaps because he’s English and prematurely vaunted as being truly elite, perhaps because he has fallen so much further below Smith’s efforts, but he is a generational talent and is extremely difficult to stop entirely. Australia had to be excellent to restrict his impact, and they were.
And you know what they say. Chop off the head of the snake…
ENGLAND’S BATTING WOES
….and the body will die. England’s entire batting line-up under-performed this summer, and that is neither new information, nor at all up for debate. Their collective average this summer has been just 23.10, the lowest for 20 years.
This could be explained by the excellence of the Australian attack, arguably the best (in terms of overall depth) to tour England since 2012. Yet even against what we would expect against opponents of such sustained quality, England have failed to meet the mark. The Expected Average of the deliveries England have faced – 26.0 – is still higher than their actual average of just 24.71. They have faced good bowling, but they have still underperformed even in that area; Australia bowled well, but the extent of England’s batting failing was out of their hands, and hugely significant.
It has to be mentioned. Anderson may be advancing in years but he is a serious force in English conditions; over the last two home summers, he’s averaged 16.08 and has generally been the largest obstacle that touring teams have had to vault. At the time, to see him wandering off at Edgbaston after just four overs was concerning for the match at hand, but in retrospect it was the moment when the series tipped terminally in Australia’s favour. The tourists still had their Superhuman player, but England’s had been struck down.
RED BALL PREPARATION
On average, England’s batsmen faced 350 deliveries in red ball cricket in the four months before the first Test; for Australia, that figure was 502 deliveries. It’s an arbitrary figure but one which articulates a point many have honed in on – Australia prepared far better for the series than England did. That’s okay, in a broader context. England’s primary aim at the start of the summer was to win the World Cup, just as it should have been. For the greatest generation of English white ball cricketers to fail in the quest for the World Cup would have been a travesty. But, just as Australia have neglected their domestic 50 form for four years since the 2015 triumph, focusing on the Ashes, England have neglected their red ball side. They arrived undercooked – Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad aside, they never truly reached top temperature.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.