The celebrations had barely even begun at Old Trafford when a sobering note was struck.
Across the media, and especially on social media, wise English pundits made a compelling point: yes, Australia has retained the Ashes, but have you considered that if Steve Smith hadn’t been in the team, they wouldn’t have?
It’s impossible to argue with. There’s no way Australia would’ve secured this series without Smith, and so, in a moral sense, is it really accurate to say they won at all?
Cricket is, after all, a team game: it would hardly be fair to grant victory to a team which could not have won if one player was missing. Unfortunately, Australians everywhere will be forced, if they’re honest, to concede that without Smith, we would not have the Ashes, and so in real terms, we do not have the Ashes at all. Sad but irrefutably true.
It’s a principle that needs more stringent application in cricket. You’ll recall, for example, that without Ben Stokes, England would never have won the World Cup, so any fair-minded watcher will have to admit that New Zealand are the current World Cup holders.
We can go further back, to right the wrongs of history. We all remember the epic 2005 Ashes series, won memorably by England. But there is no way that England could’ve won that series without Andy Flintoff, so anyone with the least interest in justice will retroactively award the 2005 Ashes to Australia.
Also the 1981 Ashes, as without Ian Botham England wouldn’t have a prayer. Add to these the 1932-33 Ashes (Harold Larwood), the 1954-55 Ashes (Frank Tyson), the 1956 Ashes (Jim Laker) and the 1978-79 Ashes (Kerry Packer).
It’s not only Ashes contests that have been unfairly adjudicated, incidentally: the Kolkata Test of 2001 could not have been won for India without VVS Laxman, so Australia definitely won that one, and therefore that series.
But then, even this doesn’t seem right, does it? As I said, cricket is a team game, and there are eleven players on a team. Clearly it’s absurd to allow a team of eleven to claim victory when victory would’ve been impossible without just one of them.
But isn’t it almost as absurd to allow it when victory is essentially due to two or three? Even three is a small minority in a team of eleven: when three men combine to win a series, it’s grossly unfair to allow eleven men to say they have “won”.
So let’s address the anomalies. In 1989 Australia won a famous Ashes victory, but records show that if you took Terry Alderman, Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor out of that team, they would’ve struggled. So let’s bite the bullet, face up to the facts and tell the truth: England won the Ashes in 1989.
Four years later, Australia won another series that would’ve been beyond their grasp without Shane Warne, Merv Hughes and David Boon, so we really do have to hand those over to the motherland too.
And in 1992-93, it’s impossible to imagine the West Indies claiming the series over Australia without Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, so it’s safe to text Allan Border and let him know his legacy is greater than he thought: turns out he DID beat the Windies in a series after all.
So what’s the cut-off here? I would say that as long as a team can honestly claim that at least five players have made indispensable contributions to a series win, they can reasonably be said to have genuinely won the series.
Obviously it’s better if they have a literal majority, but I think five is acceptable. Four, though, is borderline: it might require an independent panel to rule on cases where if four players were removed from the team, the series would not have been won.
A lot depends, of course, on the hypothetical circumstances of the mooted removal of the star players. For example, the 2019 series would probably have gone England’s way if Steve Smith had been replaced by, say, Mitch Marsh; but defeat would’ve been even more certain if he’d simply vanished from the field with no replacement.
One could imagine that the 1992-93 Windies team might’ve found reasonable replacements for their two fast bowlers if necessary; but there’s no way you could ever have found a replacement for Flintoff in 2005, as Ben Stokes was only 14 at the time. The independent panel may have to issue a ruling on this also.
However we go about it, it’s clear that efforts must be made to correct records throughout the history of Test cricket, to properly reflect the fact that victory is not victory if it depends on the winning team having been made up of exactly the same players that it was made up of.
No more can we tolerate teams claiming “wins” when, if they’d been different, they might not have.
I thank all those online pundits for bringing to our attention this serious injustice, and I congratulate England on a magnificent victory in the 2019 Ashes series. And to Steve Smith – maybe try to not be so “in the playing eleven” all the time next time, yeah?