When rain kept Australia holed up in The Oval changing rooms for more than two hours, Australia captain Pat Cummins might have thought his side were on their way to a long-awaited Ashes series win in England.
Australia were well-placed at 264-3 after play resumed in pursuit of a mammoth victory target of 384 on Monday’s final day of the fifth Test.
Even had they come away with a draw, that would still have been enough for a 2-1 series success and a first Ashes campaign triumph in England since 2001.
But instead Australia lost seven wickets for 70 runs in a dramatic collapse as England won by 49 runs to end the series all square at 2-2 – the same overall result as the 2019 Ashes.
This was an unusual trip, starting for Australia with a 209-run rout of India in last month’s World Test Championship final on the same London ground.
But with the WTC in its infancy, Cummins was aware the tour would be judged on the outcome of the Ashes.
“Whether we like it or not, Ashes series tend to define eras and teams,” he said after the final. “If we win, that is legacy-defining stuff.”
Yet in an Ashes in which Cummins’ tactics were called into question, it was Australia’s batting failures that ultimately cost them a series win.
And Nathan Lyon’s absence for the final three Tests following the veteran off-spinner’s tour-ending calf injury at Lord’s also deprived Cummins of much-needed control in the field.
As a fast bowler, a rarity among captains, a schedule of six Tests in just under eight weeks would have been physically and mentally gruelling enough for Cummins without the additional responsibilities of leadership.
Nevertheless, the 30-year-old remained an ever-present and took 18 wickets at 37.72 during the Ashes.
So much of the series was framed as a contest between England’s aggressive ‘Bazball’ approach and Australia’s more traditional Test style, exemplified by painstaking opener Usman Khawaja becoming the leading batsman in the series, with 496 runs.
England seamer Ollie Robinson proclaimed Australia were unwilling “to go toe-to-toe with us”.
But cricket, unlike ice skating, does not confer additional points for artistic impression.
In a dramatic first Test at Edgbaston, it was Cummins’ composure as a lower-order batsman that took Australia to a thrilling two-wicket win.
The flashpoint of the series followed at Lord’s, where the skipper was criticised for ignoring the “Spirit of Cricket” when quick-thinking Australia wicketkeeper Alex Carey stumped Jonny Bairstow, who wrongly thought the ball was dead.
What got lost in the ensuing furore was that England had been set a stiff 371 runs to win.
Despite home captain Ben Stokes’ stunning 155, Australia still won by 43 runs after Cummins had lured several batsmen to their doom with a hooking trap.
England had the better of a rain-marred draw at Old Trafford, with Cummins often veering between all-out attack or defence, with little in between during a run-spree.
Former Australia batsman Mark Waugh, whose twin brother Steve was the last Aussie skipper to enjoy an Ashes series win in England, 22 years ago, suggested the “burnt-out” Cummins’s time as captain was nearing its end.
“I think he’s OK when it’s easy and he doesn’t have to think too much, but it’s a real question mark,” said Waugh.
And Ian Chappell, one of Australia’s most venerated captains, told Channel Nine: “If you put nine on the boundary that’s really not designed to get people out – not good batsmen out anyhow.
“Some of his tactics in this series I would question.”
But Chappell, for all his concerns, said: “I think Pat Cummins was the right choice at the time and I haven’t seen a reason to promote another captain.”
© Agence France-Presse