There was never any chance of the current Ashes series matching the magical contest of four years ago. That series is a prime contender for the greatest series of all along with the 1960-61 epic between Australia and the West Indies. Moreover many of the all time greats associated with the 2005 series had either retired or were unavailable. All the same it must be said that in its own way the ongoing contest has produced a lot of good cricket and the fact that the series is very much open with two Tests still to be played means that interest will continue to be very high.
For starters it is good to see that the matches have been watched by large crowds. There is always a certain aura surrounding any Ashes contest given its history and tradition. The conduct of the series when there is talk that Test cricket is dying amidst the raging popularity of Twenty20 could not have been better timed. I, for one, have always believed that Test cricket will never die; it will be around for as long as cricket is played and the three formats can co-exist side by side.
The gripping events associated with the first three matches have given Test cricket a tremendous fillip. The one thing that Ashes 2009 had going for it was that it seemed to be an encounter between two closely matched teams and one hoped that this would help gloss over any declining standards in play. On the contrary what we have seen during the first three Tests is cricket of a high quality and it has certainly whetted the appetite of cricket fans. The batting on both sides was taken to be strong but there were chinks in the bowling. And while the batting has lived up to its reputation it is the bowling that has really caught the eye. Even in the absence of Brett Lee, Stuart Clarke, Steve Harmison and Ryan Sidebottom there have been several bowling spells right out of the top drawer.
Pride of place must go to Freddie Flintoff and his five for 92 in Australia’s second innings at Lord’s. Perhaps inspired by the occasion – his final Test at Lord’s – the star all rounder bowled like a man possessed. The speed, swing and lift he extracted from a seemingly perfect Lord’s turf were all something quite unbelievable. Here was a man seemingly on his last legs, suffering from one injury or the other and yet he summoned up a supreme effort in bowling England to their first win over Australia at Lord’s since Verity’s match in 1934. Of course, as only to be expected in English conditions, the home team has produced some excellent swing bowling as evidenced by the skills displayed by James Anderson and Graham Onions.
Much was made of Australia lacking a quality spin bowler and how much that would affect their chances but Nathan Hauritz has exceeded expectations. His six-wicket match haul at Cardiff took Australia to within a wicket from victory. His ten wickets so far in the series include seven in the top order and this is really commendable particularly as he was able to send down only 8.3 overs in England’s first innings at Lord’s before he was injured. Undaunted by the reputation of KP, Freddie and company he has given the ball a lot of air and has displayed effective changes in pace and turn.
Graeme Swann is another who has bowled superbly. Coming back strongly after the pasting he took at Cardiff, he played a major role in the victory at Lord’s. The two deliveries with which he bowled Michael Clarke at Lord’s and Ricky Ponting at Edgbaston could well be the deliveries of the series. On both occasions despite being confronted by batsmen who love to use their feet to spin bowling Swann had the guts to toss them up. The deliveries beat the batsmen in flight and then curled in to hit the stumps. It was classic off spin bowling.
Sparkling batting was always on the cards given the lustrous line-up on both sides and there have been seven centuries so far – six of them from the Australians. But perhaps the innings of the series so far has been Paul Collingwood’s tenacious 74 at Cardiff which went a long way to denying Aussies victory. One can be sure of seeing more such sparkling or courageous knocks in the remaining Tests even in the absence of Kevin Pietersen.
The thrills, twists and turns, many notable performances and the generally high standard of play have underscored that, when it comes to real excitement, you just can’t beat a well fought out Test match in which the suspense is prolonged. Could there be a more pulsating finish than the first Test in which England’s No 10 and No 11 defied the Aussie attack for 69 balls to stave off defeat? Can anything surpass the suspense at the start of the final day at Lord’s when there was considerable speculation over whether Australia could get the remaining 209 runs to achieve the highest fourth innings target in Test history? And then of course there was the gripping cricket on the final day at Edgbaston as Australia fought gallantly to save the match. When you consider all this it is clear that the excitement associated with the shorter versions of the game is largely superficial.