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Ashes 2023: Two contrasting theories pump oxygen into half-dead Test cricket

Ashes 2023: Two contrasting theories pump oxygen into half-dead Test cricket. Australia retained the urn and drew Ashes by 2-2.

The Ashes 2023-34: Ben Stokes, Pat Cummins having at the end of 5th Test; Ashes drew at 2-2 | Walking Wicket (Images ©ICC/Twitter)
Australia retains the urn and drew Ashes by 2-2 (Images: ©ICC/Twitter)

If someone had a chance to pen down the perfect script for the recently concluded Ashes 2023, it just couldn’t have been better than the one the fans have already experienced.

With Zak Crawley smashing Pat Cummins through covers for a boundary on the very first delivery, erasing the ghosts of 2021-22 where Rory Burns lost his leg stump to begin their dismal tour, to Stuart Broad leaving the field one last time with a wicket of Alex Carey to keep the record intact of Australia not winning an away Ashes series since 2001, the script writer couldn’t use his pen in a better way than that.

Same ground but different emotions as downhearted Australia left the UK with WTC mace and the retained urn

Less than two months apart, there were two contrasting presentation ceremonies at the Kennington Oval for Australia. From that evening where the players spent extra hours at the ground with them winning the World Test Championship (WTC) 2021-23 mace to their muted celebration holding the replica Ashes urn behind the ‘series drawn’ banner, one could sense the null and void feeling among the players with an unnatural smile.

Four years ago, it was Ben Stokes’s Headingly effort that snatched their golden opportunity of an away Ashes series victory. In 2023 it was their own fault; it was one of their poorest passages of play in the last couple of hours of tour that perhaps would see some players leaving the game with an unachievable dream.

With old Test match theory, Australia began at the top before a massive tumble

Even after coming into the series as the new WTC champion side, the question for Australia was whether they were going to change their own tactics or for how much time they could resist themselves to change their planning if England used their ‘Bazball’ mindset. It didn’t take Australia a long time to put the fielders on the rope but they did it smartly.

After Ben Stokes’s shocking declaration at the fag end of the first day’s play, opener Usman Khawaja, with his usual style of batting, played one of the greatest knocks of 141 runs in 321 balls with the help of 14 boundaries and three sixes. There was a time when Stokes tried to dry up the runs with his newly planned ‘umbrella looking field set-up’ but Khawaja fought hard mentally with few contributions from Alex Carey and Travis Head for their respective half-centuries.

Chasing 281, Australia were struggling at 227/8 as Nathan Lyon joined his captain Pat Cummins. Both showed decent strategy in their batting taking those vital singles and doubles besides a few boundaries here and there. And with an edgy boundary, Australia went 1-0 up with their fourth highest successful chase in the Ashes.

With the same confidence, Australia began well at Lord’s during the second Test and shouldering on a brilliant 110-run knock from Steve Smith, the visitors posted 416 before gaining a healthy 91-run lead thanks to both Australia’s smart bowling and England’s reckless batting. Australia, following the same process, folded up for 279 before England found themselves at 45/4 but the way Stokes was hammering the bowlers, the faces of the players and the fans were taking one back to 2019 Headingly.

What Australia did well at the time was remaining calm and went to the short ball tactic that had helped them in the entire Test and with Stokes’s wicket, it was a matter of time before they went 2-0 up with a 43-run victory. At that point, everything was going smoothly before they slipped and couldn’t actually get up.

The Ashes 2023-34_ Australia retain the urn and the Ashes; drew series by 2-2 _  Walking Wicket (Images ©CricketAus_Twitter)
Australia beat India in WTC Final ahead of Ashes 2023 (Images ©CricketAus/Twitter)
Fearless England’s reckless batting at phases cost them the perfect chance to get the urn back

England added Mark Wood and Chris Woakes, going into the third Test at Headingly, and the pace of Wood was too fiery for the Australia batters who folded up for just 263 with Wood taking 5/34. England again didn’t turn up with the bat with 131/6 until Stokes, coming out in his beast mode, with a knock of 108-ball 80 runs propelled them to 237. Stokes’s form was in a good shape especially after his lone 155-run knock at Lord’s which unfortunately came in a losing cause. After knocking Australia for another low score, England got back in the series with a three-wicket victory.

With forecast of rain for two long days, the fourth Manchester Test was always going to be the moving option. It felt like a paltry batting show from Australia even after they reached 317, with six of their batters crossing the 30-run mark, no one was able to go big unlike England who on the back Zak Crawley’s entertaining 189-run knock at a strike rate of 103.85 bagged a lead of 275 runs. However, Marnus Labuschagne’s 111 run knock with a bonus of two days of torrential rain ended the game in a draw which meant Australia retained the Ashes for the fourth straight time.

England didn’t bat well at Kennington Oval for the fourth Test apart from Harry Brook, but Australia, following the same path, could get a lead of just 12 runs. Under glorious sunshine on a pleasant day, England batted in a wild nature to reach 395 runs before Stuart Broad came out with a shocking news of announcing his retirement after a 16-year long career.

Chasing a mammoth 383, Australia were 135/0 going into day four and progressed to 264/4 before there was a landslide in the batting line-up. There was mental tiredness after a long tour as the batters almost went after every ball to be packed up for just 334 runs. Broad finished with a wicket on the last ball of his cricketing career as the 49-run England win ended the series in a draw.

The Ashes 2023-34_ Mitchell Starc won the player of the series for 23 wickets _ Walking Wicket (Images ©CricketAus_Twitter)
Starc won the player of the series (23 wickets) for 23 AUS (Images ©CricketAus/Twitter)
The expected end of Warner-Khawaja, Broad-Anderson before next Ashes Test in the UK

The emotion of the Australia players was easily visible on their faces and that perhaps could be because of not getting another chance of achieving the feat of winning an away Ashes series. Looking at the age of few players, it felt like this was probably their last Ashes in the United Kingdom.

James Anderson who would be 45 years of age by 2027, might not turn up again as could be the case for Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Steven Smith, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Josh Hazlewood and even Mark Wood, all of whom would go past the 35+ mark.

But the main question would be whether the cricketing fans could witness another Test series of those twists and turns. Both England and Australia would find themselves in their transition phase in 2027 season and those who will be a part of that 2027 series would be much proactive.

But, will Test cricket survive by that time? The common question remains to be answered.


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