It’s no coincidence the two best Ashes series this century were both played in England.
It’s also no coincidence that the most memorable Ashes moments during this time are almost exclusively on English soil. Edgbaston 2005, Old Trafford 2005, The Oval 2005, Cardiff 2009, Trent Bridge 2013 and now Headingley 2019 – all thrilling, gripping, spellbinding examples of test cricket at its absolute zenith.
Can Australia lay claim to any in that category, this century? Adelaide 2006, sure. Shane Warne bowling Kevin Pietersen around the legs, Mike Hussey stroking the winning runs off Jimmy Anderson through the covers. A famous Test match, undoubtedly. But beyond ‘Amazing Adelaide’, are there any more?
Any more that – as is the barometer for sporting spectacles – one may convey to the grandkids in years to come? Hardly.
Granted, Australia has dominated recent Ashes series on home turf, whereby the one-sided nature of the series may not have lent itself to the epics we’ve seen in England. But this is just one of several reasons why Test cricket in Australia, on the whole, has in recent years struggled to reach the blink-and-you’ll miss spectacle consistently seen in the UK.
The difference in using the Dukes ball versus the Kookaburra is the first and obvious reason for the discrepancy. The Dukes’ pronounced seams keep seamers in the game for longer – a fairly simple formula for closer contests – while the Kookaburra’s comparatively lesser, softer seam often ceases lateral movement off the pitch within 15 overs of first use.
Ball generally dominates bat in the UK, while the opposite effect is usually seen on these shores. “I feel like it stays a bit harder than the Kookaburra and it seams more,” Josh Hazlewood said of the Dukes pre-series. “You feel more in the game I guess bowling with one, from a bowler’s point of view.”
And so it proved in the series. Steve Smith and Tim Paine’s 145-run stand at Old Trafford was the highest of the series. Bowlers were always in the game, rarely appearing without answers (aside, of course, from when Smith was at the crease).
The pitches at all five venues are also to be commended, offering a fair contest between bat and ball. Contrast that with the diabolically placid Test pitches prepared at the MCG in recent years, and the difference could hardly be greater. The WACA and SCG roads offered up in the 2017-18 Ashes were nowhere to be seen in the last seven weeks.
As rain fell on day one at Headingley just four weeks ago, Channel Nine eventually decided – after an admirable amount of padding by Lisa Sthalekar – to show highlights from the WACA Test of the 2013-14 Ashes.
Up until the delay, David Warner and Marcus Labuschagne had been battling against a seaming Dukes under heavy skies, Jofra Archer steaming in to the rising noise of the Headingley faithful.
It was Test cricket, as the commentary felt needed repeating, ‘at its best’. But as the rain set in and Nine took us six years back, the contrast was jarring.
Not just because the game was being played under the typically bright blue skies of Perth, and nor because Australia were, contrary to the present, batting with ease. But watching the highlights back, the conditions offered nothing for the quicks and spinners.
The Kookaburra was being flung gun-barrel straight at the batsmen by bowlers hoping for a mistake rather than forcing one. It was ‘mow the lawns and come back to it’ Test cricket. What was happening in Leeds, by contrast, was the cricket where toilet breaks could wait.
Of course, the uniqueness of playing cricket in different climates is what makes Test cricket great. The challenge for visiting England sides coming to Australia is markedly different than the Test Australia faces in the UK. Visiting bowlers know they must toil longer and harder on these shores to taste success.
But the simple fact is, that Ashes cricket at present is invariably more exciting in England when compared with Australia.
They’ve got the formula right, and we can only hope that in two and a half years when we do it all again, Australia might one day host its own ‘Headingley 2019’.