England managed to crawl over the line and keep the Ashes alive in the 3rd Test at Headingley, despite giving us four days of ecstatic highs and excruciating lows. Will this national euphoria on a level cricket has conducted just twice this century be over in a week’s time? Who knows, but whatever you think of Ben Stokes and ‘Bazball’, its hold over us all is irrefutable.
Two years on from Rory Burns getting agonisingly bowled on the first ball of the last Ashes series, Zak Crawley’s crunched off-drive for four to Australia’s poster boy and captain Pat Cummins felt like all the assurance we needed that the McCullum critics were wrong, unequivocally and permanently, and that pressing the pause button in Test Cricket was naïve and old-fashioned.
Fast forward to the end of the 2nd Test, and McCullum’s ‘transformed’ England saw themselves needing to win every remaining match to save not only their hopes, but what feels like a necessary saviour to the format.
At 2-1 down the odds are not great, but you get the feeling this often over-exaggerated, nonetheless addictive and spellbinding team, would love nothing more than to perform the first-ever 2-0 English comeback and retrieve the Ashes from the jaws of defeat at the Oval – there are undoubtedly numerous twists in the tale to come, but we’re all just as encapsulated as we were at the start.
Looking ahead to selection at Old Trafford, it is both sides’ batting of which concerns are clear. Despite the fast, high-scoring performances that are becoming ever more defining of this fantastic series, many batters will be resting uncomfortably during this break. Warner has struggled, passing 50 just once so far, and perhaps the biggest shock coming into this Ashes is how well England have contained Labuschagne and Smith, beginning at one and two respectively in the ICC rankings, but averaging miserably at 24 and 31.7.
England’s No. 3 remains a problem – Pope did not shine, but unavailable players become world beaters
As for England, the Headingley win, alongside endless optimism and flat replies of “well, he’s a match winner” may well result in an unchanged side in Manchester, but Crawley’s devastatingly frustrating ability to, as Michael Vaughan put it, “look the best player I’ve seen to average under 30” must at some point count for something. Not soon though.
England’s No. 3 remains a problem – Pope did not shine, but unavailable players become world-beaters, and his faults have already been replaced with high praise. Brook looked undeniably out of place outside the middle order, with Moeen failing too. Yes, it may not have mattered in Leeds, but the problem of fitting Bairstow into an un-droppable top seven does seem a long time ago.
The Baggy Greens’ attack doesn’t seem as menacing as it once did. It now seems astounding that Starc didn’t play at Edgbaston, with Boland frequently pushed off his monotonous length by the boundary-finding aggression of England, and Hazlewood struggling to look as fearsome as four years ago.
The same could have been said for England – Anderson is once again “too old for this now” and Robinson’s injury could be significant. However, we should never have doubted Woakes in English conditions. His accuracy and ability to pick up wickets regularly proved invaluable, alongside the astonishing Mark Wood.
Reminiscent of Jofra Archer in 2019, Wood produced a display everyone talked of but few expected. Clocking a top speed of a blistering 96.5 mph, and recording the fastest spell in Test history, Wood’s first innings 5-fer, dismissing three of the top four, was integral to England’s victory.
With the score at 2-1 the series has never felt so alive and its audience keeps on growing, the hiatus merely working to increase the anticipation
Interestingly, ‘Bazball’, which used to be hitting sixes from ball one regardless, now seems to have a measure of calculation. Seeing Stokes transform into his Headingley ’19-self, beginning defensively and then going ballistic, feels strange. He talks the talk, but then builds an innings – it’s sort of like watching his minions fall embarrassingly to another short ball just so he can take the credit.
So, with the score at 2-1 the series has never felt so alive and its audience keeps on growing, the hiatus merely working to increase the anticipation. The brilliance of the Ashes, of the crowds, of Stokes and Head, of Cummins and Wood, can barely be overlooked.
However, this series is fighting the oncoming, inevitable takeover of corporate greed in the form of national bodies and the corrupt ICC. With the launch of Major League Cricket in America this week, and the 2027 Ashes to now have zero matches in the North, there lies a sour feeling that brilliant Test series such as this may have an out-of-date stamp.
Anyway, we’ve all got a moment to rest – the first in nearly a month – and discuss team selection, or the crowds’ brilliance, or Wimbledon. But by next Wednesday, with the players rejuvenated and ready to go, we’ll all be even more transfixed than we were at the start.