Ever since the Ashes series began way back in 1882 following England's defeat to Australia at the Oval, it has not only aroused great passion amongst the supporters of the oldest adversaries of cricket but also has been closely followed by cricket enthusiasts around the world.
The recently concluded series was no exception. England won the ODI World Cup for the first time after a thrilling final at Lord's against New Zealand and a victory against the Aussies in the Ashes series would givethem the opportunity of celebrating a double-barreled success in international cricket. This would also make the Summer of 2019 that much more memorable.
Australia, on the other hand, being disappointed at losing the ODI World Cup semi-final to England, had the chance of not only avenging that defeat but also to win the Ashes series on English soil for the first time since 2001. In other words, the settings were perfect for an awe-inspiring Ashes series.
England went 1-0 up after the first Test at Edgbaston. The second in the series at Lord's was rain-inflicted and ended in a draw. Headingley saw the heroics of Ben Stokes to enable England to level the series but Old Trafford gave the Aussies a victory that not only confirmed that they retained the urn but also opened up the opportunity to win an Ashes series in England for the first time in 18 years.
On the other hand, England had still everything to play for. A victory for them in the final Test at the Oval would level the series and save them from the ignominy of a defeat after their remarkable success in the ODI World Cup.
As it turned out, the final Test at the Oval turned out to be another thriller of a match. Having surprisingly put into bat by the Aussie skipper Tim Paine, England amassed a total of 294 with Buttler top-scoring with 70.
The Aussies in reply fell 69 runs short, thanks to some fiery bowling by the new wonder fast bowlerJofra Archer, who bagged 6 for 62 with Steve Smith, who else, putting some resistance with another great innings of 80. England scored 329 runs in their second knock with the last two wickets falling early on the fourth day. The daunting target set for an Aussie victory was 399.
But as has been repeatedly seen in the series, the Aussie opening pair failed again, with the visiting team being reduced to 85 for 4 after Ben Stokes took a brilliant diving catch at leg slip to send the talismanic batsman Steve Smith back to the pavilion. Stuart Broad took 3 wickets at that stage and it was then a matter of time as to when the Aussie innings would fold to give England a victory and leave the series level at 2-2.
Matthew Wade starred for Australia, scoring his second century of the series but his heroics were in vain. At one point, it seemed that the match would drag into a fifth day, but their innings folded a few minutes before the scheduled close of play for 263, giving England a victory by 135 runs.
The Ashes series of 2019 will remain memorable for more reasons than one. After winning the ODI World Cup in July, England were eager to win the series to regain the Ashes they lost in 2017-18. That dream died at Old Trafford in the fourth Test when Australia's victory gave them a 2-1 lead and also a chance to win the series. The victory at Old Trafford ensured the Aussies also retained the urn. However, England had everything to play for.
Their remarkable victory at Lord's not only denied the Aussies their first series win in England since 2001 but also levelled the series 2-2, last seen in an Ashes series in 1972; surprise, surprise, also at the Oval.
In that year, however, the roles were reversed. England were leading by 2-1 in the 5-match series and Australia won by 5 wickets to end the series 2-2. There haven't been many drawn Ashes series; out of 71 Ashes contests so far only 6 of them ended in draws, with the one before this 47 years ago.
For the Aussies, it will be remembered for the extra-ordinary batting performance of Steve Smith. Returning to international cricket, after serving the ban for 'ball tempering'. He showed why he is such an invaluable member to his team and a leading batsman in world cricket today.
The England bowlers were at a loss as to how to get him out. After suffering a blow from an Archer-bouncer in the second at Lord's, he was rested for the Test at Headingley. But in the four Tests he played, batting in 7 innings, he scored a staggering total of 774 runs at an average of 110.57.
His only blemish came in the last innings; the only time he was out for less than 50 in any knock. His total run haul has only been surpassed in the Ashes contest by the great Sir Don Bradman, England's Wally Hammond and former Australian skipper Mark Taylor. This summer has already been termed by many as the 'Summer of Stokes'.
There have been many outstanding performances by Englishmen in the Ashes in the recent past. Mark Butcher's 173 at Headingley in 2001, Darren Gough's hat-trick at Sydney two years earlier and Michael Vaughan's man-of-the-series effort with the bat (633 runs) on the 2002-03 tour of Australia were all great Ashes achievements.
But these were eclipsed by the remarkable performance of Ben Stokes in the final of the World Cup and his single-handed snatching of victory at Headingley from the clutches of defeat will be etched in the memories of many cricket followers for years to come.
One must not forget the contribution of the new wonder fast bowler in international cricket. There is no doubt that there have been magnificent performances on both sides, with Australia fast bowlers Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood doing wonders, but the real rising superstar has been 24-year old Barbados-born Jofra Archer who was playing his first ever Test series.In his first four Tests, he has taken 5 wickets or more in an innings twice.
His 6-wicket haul at the Oval enabled England to achieve the 69-run first innings lead and he was adjudged the player of the match. Sitting at the Vauxhall End at the Oval on the fourth day and watching his fiery 8-over spell bowling at Matthew Wade was an enthralling experience.
This was just Test cricket at its best. AS his spell went on, his pace and intensity kept on increasing, reaching his highest speed of 96.5 mph. At Lord's he achieved a speed of 96.1 mph. This young genuine pacer needs proper nurturing to propel England to greater achievements over the coming years.
By all accounts, it has been a great summer for English cricket. After winning the World Cup, it was hoped that there would be a double cause for celebration. True, the Ashes could not be regained, but the series was not lost. True, there are many issues to be resolved in England's Test team. But, it has undoubtedly been the greatest cricketing summer for England in living memory.
The writer is a senior journalist, political commentator and sports analyst
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