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Cricket news - Try forgetting the English summer of '19
Stuart Broad is coming over the wicket. Steve Smith, has already jumped across his stumps, as he has so routinely through the series.
The ball arrives a fraction quicker than he expected yet still, he manages to make perfect contact. But the angle seems a fraction wrong.
Ben Stokes has enough time to dive to his left. But in a way only Ben Stokes can. Typically, he pre-empted the shuffle and picks the perfect moment to make a tough chance look easy.
Steve Smith is out, caught leg gully.
England have been obsessed with having a leg gully to Steve Smith since almost the first moment he walked out to bat that first morning in Birmingham.
The right-hander moves across his stumps to open up every part of the ground as much for defence as for attack. While a prolific leaver, he, like all batsmen, is nourished by the feel of bat on ball, especially into the leg side where, often a single is available. Specifically, behind square leg.
The theory was thus: a bit of late movement into Smith, some greater than expected bounce and bingo there's your catching position on the '45'. As soon as he would walk out to bat, in went the leg gully. At the very least, England thought it would limit his scoring options.
It started as a regular feature in the 2015 Ashes in England, and 504 runs at an average of 56.44 tells you how well that went. What about the extra bounce in Australia, though? Out came the plan in 2017/18. 687 runs at an average of 137. Pretty conclusive.
Here though, it worked. Not so much for keeping the runs down, because well just have a gander at *these* numbers. But the misjudgement, the poor execution, the lack of awareness. All together in perfect disharmony. Somewhere, in the depths of a laboratory in the ECB's performance centre in Loughborough, an analyst sits up from his chair, removes his glasses with one hand and shouts, "I knew it!"
Finally, England had Smith caught at leg gully.
Just as they did on a number of occasions this summer, somehow, England found a way.
The Compton-Miller Medal was always going to be Smith's even if he only got his hands on it at around 6:30pm on day four. Quantifying what Smith has achieved in this series is pretty straightforward if you stick with statistics.
774 runs across four matches and an average of 110.57 in a series where ball has dominated bat. Three hundreds, a top-score of 211. Being a bit cuter: this 23 was his first score under 80 in seven innings.
He falls 200 short of Don Bradman's Ashes tally in 1930 which isn't too bad considering he missed out on three innings. In terms of all-time Ashes hauls, he slots in at No 5 on the list.
How about emotionally, though? Because all the way through, you knew you were watching something special. Publicly, the front from England players was about trying different things and talking of modest "eureka!" moments. But privately, there was a lot of head-banging and even a few, "seriously - how does he keep doing that?" In his final press conference of the series, Root came clean with a rueful smirk: "He's been a pain, really."
But really, it was the crowd that summed it up. The support throughout the season has been partisan, bullish, and when the moments have arrived, electric.
They booed from the pits of their diaphragm when Smith walked out at Edgbaston for his first bat of the series. And when he walked off, finally, legitimately, vanquished, they booed again because they always have.
But by the time he had reached the edge of the square, they rose to their feet and applauded. It was an ovation on par with what serenaded Alastair Cook this time last year when the England legend walked off, one last century to his name, and into retirement.
It was an acknowledgement of greatness because, even though it does not come around often, we know when we see it. Even when it walks off for 23.
To put it matter of factly - the reason the urn returns to Australia with the series tied is because of Smith: for what he did in 2017/18 and what he's done in 2019. Between those periods, his life was put into turmoil. And whatever the views on the punishment, whether it was just, whether it was lenient, or whether you partake in that little thing called narrative - here was one of the greatest series performances ever seen.
And, for the third time in his career, Smith was caught at leg gully. For the second time, it was off a seamer.
Stuart Broad had removed Steve Smith seven times in Tests. But considering Smith has played 44 innings while Broad's been in the field, it's not a ratio to boast about.
Indeed, this was not a match-up England had in mind. For it was James Anderson who would be the death of Smith, in theory at least. All of 575 wickets, 148 Tests and a 2018 Dukes ball tailor-made to the measurements of his right arm.
By contrast, it was a man of 33, not the one of 37, who was talked of being on his last legs. The years were kinder to Jimmy, but harsher on Stuart. For it was supposed to be his last summer, at least that was the consensus when sights were set on Test cricket in July.
Broad had missed the first two Tests in Sri Lanka and dropped from the opening match in the Caribbean. To say he was riled would be an understatement and to say it was understated would also be so.
Like Anderson, though, Broad has evolved. The run-up shorter, the wrist more cocked and, as a combination of both, the pace and bounce of old - of *those* trademark tail-up, leg pumping spells - returned. And so, when a calf felled Anderson for all but four overs of the series, he became the leader of the attack.
"We didn't have to say anything to him," said Trevor Bayliss. "He just took on the extra burden." The departing head coach reckons Australia will see him again in two years time.
Taking a step back, you wonder why you even doubted? Because nothing brings the best out of Broad quite like Australia. His 23 Test wickets this series, costing 26.65 runs apiece, have made him the first English bowler to take more than 20 in four Ashes series. As ever, his four on the final day of the series were proper.
Marcus Harris needed a Satnav to locate his off-stump when Broad, from around the wicket, left the left-handers' outside edge for dead. Then David Warner - oh, David Warner - falling for a seventh time in 10 meetings this summer. To a beauty this time. Pat Cummins' was the other to fall when Broad returned to nip any tension in the bud. But the big one was the third.
Smith shouted "wait" because he thought he'd read it well. But it was only when checking for a run the full scale of his error came to pass. The thing is though, Smith always knows. And after 1195 balls, you get a feel for control. But 1196 was not as low or as wide as he would have liked.
And maybe, had anyone else been there at leg gully, he might have been OK.
Sunday may be a day of rest. But tell that to Ben Stokes.
Two years ago, it was a Sunday in September when he thought quite a few drinks in Bristol would be a good idea. A Sunday in July of this year when he decided it was him or nothing if England were going to win a World Cup. An August Sunday when he repeated the trick to steal the third Test at Headingley. And one more September Sunday when he thought, actually, a quieter one will do.
He did not bowl in this Test, even though he has stepped up for some of the toughest overs of the series. When the other seamers needed to be saved but both jeopardy and control needed to remain.
With the bat, there was only 20 and 67, neither a top-score when he not only topped England charts with his tally of 441 but also registered the highest score on his side with a 135 not out which did so much more than keep the series alive. With the World Cup final, he brought people into his game. At Headingley, he got another round in.
Within the contest of the side, he has made the number four or five spot his own, whichever he fancies. And the only reason he is not captain is because there is not enough space in his basket.
It was here, back at the end of May, when Stokes went viral for the first time this summer. A stunning grab out at deep square leg off a powerful sweep from Andile Phehlukwayo. England's opening World Cup match against South Africa was already won at that point. But the engagement of a nation ambivalent to cricket began at that very moment.
The faces when he took this Smith catch were all too familiar. Just as it was against South Africa back in May, when he dragged England to the precipice at Lord's in July, and crashed the four through cover in August, all around him, especially those in his camp, were in ecstasy. Stokes, though, was focused. Roaring. In the moment. Delivering and living.
Smith was gone. England were on course to win. Stokes, as he has been, was there.
Matthew Wade threatened it, but how could it have not been a draw.
England drew the World Cup final. They had to draw the Test series. Every ounce of energy had been drawn from all players, all comers and all lovers. Every last drop of excitement from this beautiful game has to offer, squeezed out in summer like no other.
The pub discussions leading up to this summer like never before were what would you rather: an Ashes or a World Cup?
"That's not a fair question to ask the Test captain!" replied Joe Root, heavily involved in both, when it was put to him.
Well, there it lies. A World Cup England did not traditionally win is theirs. An Ashes they did not outright lose is not. Even if they won this by 135 runs, the battle was lost.
Whichever way that grabs you is to your own. But good luck forgetting the summer of 2019
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