As the fourth Test was washed away by Manchester’s typically abysmal weather, robbing England of an almost certain series-leveller in this absorbing Ashes series, an air of resignation could be felt from the diehards left in the terraces.
That was echoed by a glum Ben Stokes, who had realised England’s dream of miraculously winning the Ashes was over. Meanwhile, Australia captain Pat Cummins, almost sheepishly, acknowledged the retention of the urn but was in no mood for celebrating unlike four years ago.
This much-hyped Ashes – cricket’s biggest series – has been all about England and the adoption of their hyper-aggressive style popularly known as ‘Bazball’. Whatever happens in the fifth Test, this series will always be remembered for ‘Bazball’ for better or worse.
But there is much at stake for Australia, who won’t be content with merely a drawn 2-2 series like in 2019 which was heavily celebrated given they had just emerged from the harrowing sandpaper scandal.
This aging Australian team is at the end of the road in many respects. A number of players are close to retirement – or should have been told to like David Warner – or at the backend of their careers.
Whether their selectors want to or not, given their loyalty to seasoned players, Australia will have to transition at some point. It makes sense to after this series with Australia not playing Test cricket again until the home summer.
A soft launch against Pakistan, who are allergic to playing Test cricket in Australia, and West Indies will be welcome after such an exhausting period.
Australia could not break through in India, no shame in that, but did get revenge by winning the World Test Championship – a mishmash of a tournament but deserved recognition of a strong period for them under Cummins.
This is Australia’s best team in 15 years, but almost amounts to naught without winning in England with the Ashes defining legacies. If they return home with a draw, having let slip a 2-0 initiative, Australia will feel bitterly disappointed and undoubtedly England will claim the stance of moral victors – already doing so even when trailing.
But there surely can be no sugar coating – even amid the ultra-positivity bordering on delusions – over a 3-1 defeat for England, placing ‘Bazball’ under the microscope. That resounding scoreline, however, would be a significant punctuation for Australia, cementing them as a great team to most observers.
If they are to achieve that goal, Australia will have to muster energy having appeared to run out of gas in Manchester. Before the rain arrived, Australia looked exhausted and almost broken by ‘Bazball’ in a predicament they haven’t been in for years.
It’s hard to blame them given the tough demands of the tour and with talismanic captain Cummins appearing worn down by his heavy burden. He’ll need to summon one last burst if Australia are to halt England’s momentum and the expected feverish crowd at the Oval.
This might not have been the must-win shootout many had hoped – the type of thrilling decider that would have gripped the nation and placed cricket at the center of the country’s mainstream in a rarity – but there is still much on the line.
For both teams.