Like a phoenix

Ironically, while the period between April 2007 and the present was dominated by the game’s newest and shortest format, it also featured a resurgence of one the game’s oldest traditions: the Ashes.

This is, from my perspective, primarily because the trophy became competitive again. Before the famous 2005 series victory for England, Australia had held the urn for 16 years, since June of 1989. Australia won it back in the very next series, in a 5-0 white-washing during the Australian summer of 2006-2007. But after that, the series enjoyed a long run of enjoyable back and forth cricket — including a year which featured two Ashes series, which was a real festival of Test cricket for those of us that enjoy the game’s longest format.

England won the trophy back on home soil in the summer of 2009 — 10 years ago, how is that possible!? — and then in a real shocker, went down to Australia and retained the urn, winning the series three matches to one, with one drawn. Then in 2013 — the year that due to a scheduling quirk featured two Ashes series — England retained it again on home soil that summer, before Australia took it back six months later. That last series featured the only 5-0 Ashes whitewash of the period in question.

England took the Ashes back in the summer of 2015, before Australia returned the favor in 2017-18 and holding onto the trophy in England this past summer (which also feels like a million years ago).

All told, for the period between spring 2007 and last summer, Australia won 15 Ashes matches, England 13, and there were seven draws. The trophy changed hands a remarkable four times — remarkable in that it had changed hands exactly zero times between 1989 and 2005.

(Side note: did the fact that that the Ashes were a bit snoozy for all those years lead to the rise of the Twenty20? Was it that, and the dismal 2007 World Cup, that brought us here today? Maybe a vacuum was created and the Twenty20 just snuck right in.)

Over the course of those 25 matches, we saw some really remarkable cricket. In 2009, there was that oh so memorable fifth and deciding match. In 2010-11, down in Australia, Alistair Cook ruled the world, scoring 766 runs for England, including an inspired fifth Test score of 189, handing his country an innings victory and an Ashes series victory in Australia for the first time since 1987, 22 years. The 2010-11 series is also the most recent Ashes to feature a series victory by the visiting team.

Back in England, in 2013, we saw the emergence of Joe Root for England, and the beginning of Kevin Pietersen’s international swan song. It wasn’t the most competitive series, as England retained the Ashes while in the dressing room during a rain delay of the third Test, after winning the first two matches. The second match was never in doubt, with England winning by 347 runs. But the first match in the series was a classic, and featured Australian debutant Ashton Agar’s 98, which was part of a record smashing 10th wicket stand, keeping his side in the game when they were falling off a cliff at 117/9, and actually giving them a lead of 65 runs. The Aussies damn near chased down what first appeared to be an insurmountable total of 311, falling just a handful of runs short.

For me, personally, the first Test of the summer 2013 series was my favorite Test of this period.

Then a few months later, Australia took England down under and whalloped them, 5-0, in a series that reminded most of that dark decade and a half when Australia just won and won and won. Mitchell Johnson took 37 wickets and was man of the series. David Warner scored 523 runs and Kevin Pietersen played his last Test for England. And none of the matches were particularly close, as Australia won by 381 runs, 218 runs, 150 runs, 8 wickets and 281 runs. (Not to start a conspiracy theory here, but Australia also won every coin toss except for the one prior to the fifth Test. Coincidence? Probably.)

One note for England in that series was the Test debut for one Benjamin Andrew Stokes, who scored his maiden Test century in the third Test.

Sadly, this was also the series that saw Jonathon Trott fly home early due to his mental health struggles.

In 2015, England regained the trophy, winning three matches to Australia’s two. Joe Root solidified his place as England’s best batsman, and Ben Stokes showed his all-rounder chops, taking six wickets in the second innings of the fourth Test. But the fourth Test will be remembered for Australia’s score of just 60, lasting just 18.3 overs, a hair over 90 minutes. Stuart Broad took eight wickets that day, putting him alongside England’s greats like Ian Botham for wickets taken as well as runs scored.

Now it was Australia’s turn, winning down under 4-0 in 2017-18, then retaining the Ashes this past summer after a drawn series (the first drawn Ashes series since 1972). None of the matches of the 2017-18 series were very competitive: Australia won the first Test by 10 wickets, thanks to David Warner’s 87 in the second innings, part of an unbroken first wicket stand with Cameron Bancroft.

This past summer we were slightly more entertained, especially in the 3rd Test, which saw the hosts, England, win by just one wicket, in one of the more remarkable Test matches in recent memory, featuring of course Ben Stokes’s stand at the end of England’s second innings. He put the entire team — nay, the entire country, gone cricket mad after England’s World Cup win — on his back and dragged them over the finish line. Somehow. Some way. This despite the fact that England only scored 67 in their first innings. The match also saw the emergence of Jofra Archer as test bowler, taking six wickets in Australia’s first innings.

But despite the dramatics, Australia were (are?) just too good for England. Steve Smith — freshly back from his suspension for ball tampering — just batted and batted and batted and batted, scoring 774 runs, double that of the next highest scoring Aussie batsman. It was a batting clinic, and England had no answer for him. (Except for the third Test, which saw Smith sitting out due to an injury.)

And that brings us today. Australia hold the Ashes, just as they did at the beginning of the 13 years between 2007 and 2020. The next Ashes series is scheduled for 2021-22 in Australia. It’s over 18 months from now, but like all things, it is in doubt. Which is a shame. Over the last 13 years, it felt like another Ashes series was right around ever corner, so we all always had something to look forward to. But now that light is out. And that can be so hard.

The Ashes will come back though. They came back after an eight year break during World War 1, and they came back again after yet another eight year break for World War 2. None of us can fathom eight years of battling this virus, but even if it takes that long, the Ashes will, some day, come back. They will come back to a changed world, just like they did in 1920 and 1946. But they will still be the Ashes, this trophy that has provided us with so much entertainment over the years, and they will come back, just like they always do.

In cricket, and in history, and in tradition, there is always hope.

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