1st Test: Cardiff, July 8-12
I always believe that the first ball dictates how the first over will pan out, the first over dictates how the first session will pan out, and so on. The first ball of the series was a good ball by Mitchell Johnson. It wasn't one that could take a wicket, nor was it one that the English could score from. Indeed, true to my theory, the first Test ended in a tight draw.
This is the first series that I have been staying awake until 4 in the morning to watch (indeed, the first series that I have been able to) and I was gripped. The match was first in England's hands on the first day, then slowly Australia wrested back control. But through a combination of poor weather and excellent batting, England were able to hang on until literally the last minute to draw the match.
The Test was one in which records were made. In its only innings, Australia scored 674-6d. Four Australians scored centuries1, which hasn't been done in an Ashes Test since the 1930s. Two of them were Ashes debutants, two veterans. This was enough to get ahead of England's 435 from the first innings. On a crumbling fourth-day wicket, Ponting decided to have a crack at the English, and his men picked up two vital wickets. However, rain all but wiped out the last session of Day 4, and I believe this was the deciding factor for the match. An extra 30 overs would have been well and truly enough for Australia to win the match.
The English relied on some pretty unlikely heroes to see them through to the final minutes. Having nearly wiped out the deficit of 239, Paul Collingwood was caught at gully, ending his 245-ball resistance. Monty Panesar and James Anderson, notorious tail-end batsmen, were at the crease for 11.3 overs. All they needed. The game ran out of time, and the Aussies ran out of luck: match drawn.
ENG 435 (KP Pietersen 69, PD Collingwood 64, MJ Prior 56; MG Johnson 87-3, NM Hauritz 95-3) and 252-9 (PD Collingwood 74; BW Hilfenhaus 47-3, NM Hauritz 63-3) drew with AUS 674-6d (RT Ponting 150, MJ North 125*, SM Katich 122, BJ Haddin 121, MJ Clarke 83; JM Anderson 110-2)
2nd Test: Lord's, July 16-20
Australia had history and form on their side coming into the match: England had not won against Australia at Lord's since 1934 - a staggering 75 years. England won the toss and batted on a very good track that proved to retain its overall shape throughout the match. However, the match turned out to be just as tense as the previous one - in a different way.
Starting off in much the same fashion as the previous Test, England were bowled out for 425, with the tail wagging again despite losing three wickets very early on the morning of the second day. England kept its domination up throughout the next two days, such that Australia were bowled out for only 215. Both Australian and English supporters were pretty much split down the middle as to whether or not Andrew Strauss would enforce the follow-on or not; he opted not to, and England zoomed ahead to give Australia a total of 522 to win.
Some would say, during the fourth day, that Strauss declared the second innings closed too soon. 522 is a reasonable score given the amount of time that the Aussies had; however, historically, no first-class team has successfully chased down a target that high in the fourth innings.4 These fears were dispelled when Strauss' men took five wickets in the first two sessions. Three of these five wickets were marred with controversy: Simon Katich was revealed to have been caught off a no-ball that the umpires failed to note; the catch off Phil Hughes was revealed to have grounded first; Mike Hussey was revealed to have not struck the ball as it bit sharply into the pitch and turned away, being caught at slip. These errors were all discovered later with the aid of TV replay. Could it have changed the outcome?2 3
Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin made the dream possible, with a huge 6th-wicket partnership that carried on overnight. In the end, however, despite resistance from Mitchell Johnson (63), the tail end crumbled (with a lot of help from Freddie), leaving Australia with only 406 of the 522 runs.
ENG 425 (AJ Strauss 161, AN Cook 95; BW Hilfenhaus 103-4, MG Johnson 132-3) and 311-6d (MJ Prior 61, PD Collingwood 54; NM Hauritz 80-3) defeated AUS 215 (MEK Hussey 51; JM Anderson 55-4, G Onions 41-3) and 406 (MJ Clarke 136, BJ Haddin 80; MG Johnson 63; A Flintoff 92-5, GP Swann 87-4) by 115 runs.
3rd Test: Edgbaston, July 30-August 3 (no play on August 1)
This was a Test match that was wracked with weather and light problems, so bad that only one day's worth of play was made in the first three days. Matter of fact, Day 3 was completely abandoned, and for a while, it looked like Day 1 would be the same. However, play resumed for good on Day 4. By that point, Australia were all out, and England were well on their way to chasing down their modest total. At the end of Day 4, Australia were back in and down two wickets, and England had a firm grip on the game. But, unfortunately for England, time was an enemy, and Australia batted out Day 5 to finish the game with a draw.
AUS 263 (SR Watson 62; JM Anderson 80-5, G Onions 58-4) and 375-5 (MJ Clarke 103*, MJ North 96, MEK Hussey 64; SCJ Broad 38-2) drew with ENG 376 (A Flintoff 74, AJ Strauss 69; BW Hilfenhaus 109-4, PM Siddle 89-3)
4th Test: Headingley, August 7-11 (no play on August 10, 11)
Early on in the game, it was apparent that Australia had an iron grip on the game, picking up 6 wickets in the opening session to have England reeling. Peter Siddle picked up 5 wickets as England crumbled to be all out for 102, with only Matt Prior (37*) and Alastair Cook (30) scoring double figures. In contrast, Australia's first innings was an impressive one to start with: despite losing four wickets during the remainder of day 1, they cruised ahead at nearly Twenty20 rates to finish the day 94 runs ahead, with Ricky Ponting scoring a quick-fire 78 and Shane Watson scoring yet another "just-half-century".
England's poor form continued into Day 2 as they allowed Michael Clarke to score 93 and Marcus North 110, the latter assisted by some lower-order resistance from Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark. Despite losing some quick-fire wickets early in their second innings, England looked like they could reel in the 343-run deficit, with the plucky lower order deciding to have a bit of fun in the face of defeat and ended up putting on nearly 200 for the last 5 wickets. However, England finished still 80 runs short of Australia.
Both teams had a similar strategy, as evidenced by the fact that both teams played four pacemen, England calling up Harmison and Australia selecting Stuart Clark over Hauritz. The Headingley pitch is traditionally a seamer's wicket. Theories about why England lost this game within three days have ranged from Australia's selection of four pacemen, six batsmen, and a wicket-keeper against England's selection of three pacemen, a spinner, a pace-bowling all-rounder, a wicket-keeper and five batsmen; to missing two key players in Kevin Pietersen and Fred Flintoff. Also duly noted are England's middle-order strength (or lack thereof - Ravi Bopara, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood only scored 16 runs between them for the entire match) and Australia's statistical advantage (Michael Clarke, in particular, has scored plenty of runs this season). But, thankfully, this time there were no allegations about umpiring or time-wasting from either side.
ENG 102 (PM Siddle 21-5, SR Clark 18-3) and 263 (GP Swann 62, SCJ Broad 61; MG Johnson 69-5, BW Hilfenhaus 60-4) lost to AUS 445 (MJ North 110, MJ Clarke 93, RT Ponting 78, SR Watson 51; SCJ Broad 91-6) by an innings and 80 runs.
5th Test: The Oval, August 20-24 <-Currently in progress
Events reminiscent of the Lord's Test unfolded very quickly during the match, with England reaching a reasonable total within a day, and hauling the Australians out for a small first-innings total. Again, they reached a 545-run lead, and declared, leaving Australia two days and one hour to reach this massive total. Yet again, it was a circumstance in which history would have to be made4.
Two major batting streaks were broken in this match - one for the better, one for the worse. James Anderson had previously batted in 54 Test innings without scoring a single duck, and in the first innings he was trapped in front after a mere six balls; on his way for 0. In addition, Mike Hussey made his first century in 28 Test innings, a score well received by Australian players and supporters alike - but probably none more so than the man himself.
England's faltering middle order sparked into action in this Test, with the Nrs. 3, 4 and 5 (Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, Jonathan Trott) scoring 137 in the first innings between them, in comparison to the 16 from last match. Trott also made a century on debut, scoring 119 in the second innings before being caught at gully and being the last dismissal before Strauss' second declaration of the series.
This Test was Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff's last. He marked the occasion well, with a cameo 22 from 18 in the second innings, before holing out; he also effected the run-out of his nemesis Ricky Ponting in the second innings for 66, which was a key wicket at the time.
Ultimately, though the Aussies showed fight and did not give away their wickets easily, they lost by 197 runs with pretty much a repeat of Lord's. The Men Of The Series were Michael Clarke and Andrew Strauss. Oh well - see ya next year, Pommies.
ENG 332 (IR Bell 72, AJ Strauss 55; PM Siddle 75-4, BW Hilfenhaus 71-3) and 373-9d (IJL Trott 119, AJ Strauss 75, GP Swann 63; MJ North 98-4) defeated AUS 160 (SM Katich 50; SCJ Broad 37-5, GP Swann 38-4) and 348 (MEK Hussey 121, RT Ponting 66; GP Swann 120-4, SJ Harmison 54-3) by 197 runs.
England wins the Ashes, 2-1.
1 On a side note, in that same innings, five English bowlers also went for 100. Only Collingwood, who had bowled 9 overs, had gone for less.
2 Later, many Australians accused the English of cheating, and the umpires of favouring the English. Personally, I think that attitude won't help us win any more games: it just shows how good the Aussies are at whining. Ricky: suck it the hell up and get on with the game.
3 In addition, the debate about the umpire referral system - due to be fully implemented in October 2009 - has re-sparked, most people saying it can't come quickly enough. Personally, I feel it's a travesty: the day it is implemented will forever be a black day in my history books. YMMV.
4 Interestingly, the highest unsuccessful fourth-innings total is 651-5, by England against South Africa. However, this was a timeless Test that turned into a draw, and could well have been a victory by England.