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As the dust settles on the Ashes and the two teams lick their wounds, Trivial Pursuits takes a look back at the series.

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The Aussies arrived in the country in disarray. Within weeks they had sacked their coach and sent one of their better batsmen home in disgrace after an altercation with Joe Root in a Birmingham bar. Ever the oafish patriot, Ian Botham predicted a 10-0 whitewash (combined with this winter’s return series) against what was derided as the worst Australian team ever.

But the tourists put up a hell of a fight, and while the scoreline looked emphatic, it was only during the Lords demolition that England asserted the sort of dominance that many were expecting.

As usual with the Ashes, there were a spattering of heroes and villains. It was a series in which cuddly figures like Darren Lehmann became complete arseholes, in which comedy villains like David Warner and Peter Siddle showed they were actually quite good blokes, and Stuart Broad showed what we all suspected, that he was a bit of an over-competitive bellend. He also showed what a destructive bowler he can be.

As the increasingly acerbic commentary of Shane Warne (whose ability to retain a degree of impartiality in the commentary box was pitiful by the end of a series where he was practically on the touring coaching staff) proved, there is a sense of bad feeling that will stew until the 21st November in Brisbane.

That return series is set up to be a classic, but in the mean time what lessons have we learned from the 2013 Ashes?

1.    The ICC does itself no favours

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There is no doubt that cricket has enjoyed a surge in popularity over the last decade. The introduction of T20 has brought in a raft of fans who previously saw the sport as inexplicably and inaccessibly long-winded, while the drama of the 2005 Ashes and the subsequent success of the England team have raised its profile immeasurably on these shores. However despite the praiseworthy attempts by the ICC to modernize and commercialise the sport, there have been moments this series that have highlighted the worst aspects of their adherence to traditional disciplines.

Sunday’s series (anti)climax was one such moment where cricket had a chance to appeal to the masses and blew it.

While there are many who have criticised Michael Clarke for harassing the umpires into using their light-meters, the fact of the matter is that there is no way that Alistair Cook wouldn’t have done the same if the boot was on the other foot. Furthermore, if anything Clarke deserved praise for making a bold declaration (one which the more risk-averse Cook would almost certainly not have made) and actually creating the semblance of drama in the first place.

The real villains of the piece were the ICC for not inserting a degree of common sense to the strict guidelines. The moment the match went down to a set number of overs, they simply had to be bowled, especially in these days of floodlights and day/night matches. Additionally, the concept of bad light stopping play is principally to protect the batsmen and as such it should really be their call as to whether they “take the light”. There was a faint absurdity in the sight of Matt Prior begging umpire Aleem Dar to stay on the field. It was one that did the sport no favours.

Sadly this was not the first time in the series that the “correct” decision flew in the face of logic. The DRS system has had a fairly torrid time, especially behind the stumps. The use of Hot Spot was so random at times that appeals for caught behind might as well have gone down to a coin toss. Which leads to the next point…

2.    DRS needs evolution not revolution

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In the world of Premiership football, which has recently embraced its own form of Decision Review System in the form of goal-line technology, there was a decisive moment on the opening weekend. As Chelsea played Hull, a shot cannoned down off the crossbar and appeared to cross the line before bouncing out to safety. These scenarios have traditionally been the catalyst for ugly scenes involving 22 players shouting at the referee and shoving each other like petulant children, but this time something strange happened. The referee’s watch was programmed to inform him if the ball crossed the line. When it didn’t do so, the game continued and even Jose Mourinho, a man who makes Genghis Khan look reasonable, accepted the decision and got on with doing his job. You could practically hear the satisfied sighs of relief from the FA as the technology was gloriously vindicated.

Sadly for cricket and the ICC, this summer has provided the opposite for DRS.

While Stuart Broad’s leaden boots at Trent Bridge might spring to mind, it’s important to remember that this was not a failure of the system. In fact DRS would have sent Broad on his way at the drop of a hat, had Clarke not wasted both of his team’s appeals on the sort of ludicrous, speculative reviews that sadly became commonplace for both sides over the summer.

On the flipside of this, there were a handful of reviews where the replays appeared to resoundingly show the batsman was not out, only for the 3rd umpire to send him on his way. This all culminated in an extraordinary decision when Usman Khawaja missed a ball from Graeme Swann by the sort of distance that a pub-league slogger would and yet found himself caught behind. As if that wasn’t enough, Australia also lost a precious review, which frankly added insult to what could be a career-ending injury (metaphorically) for Khawaja.

The solution is not a simple one. In this knee-jerk world of Twitter and instant analysis it seems easy to stick the knife in, yet it’s important to forget that the Decision Review System has been an almost resounding success in the four years since its introduction. At the back end of 2012, as England toured India, the home side’s decision to eschew it was derided as archaic.

This summer a combination of terrible umpiring (and sadly, given that 8 of the world’s elite 12 umpires hail from either England or Australia, this is something that is going to haunt Ashes series) and ambiguity over the rules have resulted in some horrible calls.

There is little debate as to whether the “Hawkeye” element of DRS works for LBW appeals, where the purity of the system combined with a strong bias in favour of the onfield decision leave little margin for error. Hot Spot, on the other hand, has been a nightmare and may need to be tweaked to avoid future shocks.

In contrast to Hotspot, Hawkeye provides little in the way of controversy

In contrast to Hotspot, Hawkeye provides little in the way of controversy

Some have suggested the addition of “Snicko”, the soundwave analysis tool which is currently not part of the process, others might point to 3rd umpires being better at using the technology. The key thing though is that the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater. DRS has improved the accuracy of decisions, however it is not yet flawless. It has had a summer to forget but this should be used by the ICC as a springboard to improving it.

3.    The Shermanator has come of age

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For some time now, Ian Ronald Bell has been an infuriating enigma in this England team. His batting average of 46-odd, combined with the best driving by an Englishman since Stirling Moss, would suggest the presence of a truly world-class talent. However throughout the near-decade in which he has graced the England middle-order, there has always been the lingering doubt over his ability to score runs when the team really needed them. In a sport where stats define a career, there has frequently been a suspicion that cashing in with big hundreds in resounding victories was masking deficiencies in mental toughness and tighter scenarios. This fallacy has now been resoundingly put to bed.

Bell’s century at Trent Bridge was one of England’s most vital in recent memory and single-handedly wrestled the momentum back from the clutches of an Ashton Agar-inspired Australia. He followed that with another equally impressive ton at Lords, after coming to the crease with England tottering like a drunken aunt on a hen do on 28-3. A third century followed in the victory at Chester le Street and it’s no slight to suggest that, in a series where the ball dominated the bat, Bell’s consistent and elegant run scoring (he scored two crucial half-centuries too) was the biggest differentiating factor between the two sides. Rarely has a man-of-the-series decision been more obvious.

4.    The scoreline flattered England

A 3-0 scoreline in a series where two games were essentially ruined by the weather may look pretty comprehensive, yet the annuls of history will probably fail to record just how close the individual encounters actually were.

 

OK, maybe the weather didn't ruin it for everyone...

OK, maybe the weather didn’t ruin it for everyone

Granted the Lords test (after the first session) was a good old-fashioned thumping, but it’s easy to forget that England had almost run out of ideas before Anderson’s late controversial strike at Trent Bridge. Furthermore, after an enormous rain-assisted let-off at Old Trafford, an outstanding evening burst by Stuart Broad at Durham combined with a batting collapse by Australia that even John Crawley, Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash would have been proud of, to again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Had common sense prevailed and England won the last test to make it 4-0, it might have been the most unjust scoreline since the Battle of Waterloo.

There are those who will point to these “key sessions” and opine that winning those is what separates the great from the good. There is a lot of truth to that, but one suspects that, in a game where luck can have a major bearing on events, the truly great would probably rather keep the action slightly further from the skin of their teeth.

5.    England look twice the team when they play aggressively

How to take short leg out of the equation...

How to take short leg out of the equation…

All the great cricket teams, from the West Indians in the 70s, to the Australians of the early 2000s and even Strauss and Vaughan’s England have asserted their dominance with an air of arrogant panache. While it’s certainly true to say that batsmen tend to save games while bowlers win them, the game is more psychological than that.

While it is understandable to play with a degree of caution in a match that lasts 450 overs, a combination of poor form and self-doubt in the England top order exacerbated the threat that a surprisingly potent Australian attack posed. The trouble with form is that it is largely self-inflicted and the more attention you pay to a slump in it, the more it consumes you.

Kevin Pietersen is a case in point. He came into the series on the back of an injury-hit spring, a controversy-riddled 2012 and a run of fairly mediocre scores. He struggled badly at the start, but stuck to his attacking principles, hit a great century and by the final day at the Oval looked as fluent as he has at any time in the last decade.

This was in stark contrast to Alistair Cook, who seems to have really gone into his shell since the early days of his captaincy. On his day Cook is a fluent stroke-maker, he simply wouldn’t be in the ODI team if he wasn’t, yet over the last year or so his scoring rate has dropped so far that he’s not far from adopting a Yorkshire drawl and beating his wife (too soon?). With a stick of rhubarb. In his mum’s pinny.

Australia demonstrated in their treatment of Chris Woakes and the hapless Simon Kerrigan at the Oval the sort of attitude that many of England’s batsmen should have deployed against the likes of Mitchell Starc and Ashton Agar throughout the series.

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An established bowler like Jimmy Anderson or Graeme Swann might get hit out of the attack, but they have the experience to come back unperturbed. As Woakes and Kerrigan proved (neither even bowled in the brief 2nd innings), younger bowlers lose their nerve and the faith of their captain with greater ease.

Going into the series Starc, Pattinson, Agar and Faulkner had 24 tests between them. As well as they bowled, England simply showed them too much respect.

It was only during the manic run chase at the Oval, when challenged by a bullish Clarke declaration, that England really rose to the occasion and showed just how dominant they can be with the bat. Within reason, this should be the blueprint for the winter tour down under.

by Harry Harland

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