Australia never quite got going in the last match. Admittedly, we didn't know that England's first innings of 332 would later be so strong, and at 73-0 Ponting's men looked comfortable, but from then on the game just eased away from them. Early wickets in the second innings gave them hope, but a fantastic ton on debut by Jonathan Trott left them chasing a mammoth total. It says something about the public's belief in England that everyone still faintly believed/feared that 546 was chaseable, although quite a few records needed to be shattered. The highest winning chase at the Oval for a Test victory was a mere 263, and while Mike Hussey pushed Australia bravely to that score and beyond, the margin of victory was still comfortable.
From first light on Thursday morning it looked like a good toss to win. This was borne out quickly, as any runs put up on the board became increasingly valuable as the game progressed. The lack of a full-time spin option undoubtedly hurt Australia's chances, although Marcus North, to his credit, showed himself to be a very competent player with the ball, having already performed heroics with the bat. In Ponting's defence, no one could have predicted the extent and immediacy of the pitch's deterioration. "Dust bowl" doesn't describe it - it was more like the Atacam desert during a dry spell, just after a herd of whatever is heavy and lives in the Atacama had had a bit of a shuffle around.
Jonathan Trott deserves an honourable mention. All of the doubts surrounding his inclusion will be forgotten; the name of Ramprakash will be recalled only with a laugh. His 41 in the first innings, despite being a trifle lower than Strauss would have liked, showed England that they had what they wanted: a middle-order batsman who was calm and collected under the very greatest of pressure. He consolidated this in his second knock, where he showed maturity and coolness far beyond his experience, and hit a glorious hundred to take England home.
A performance like that pretty much guarantees him a place in the team for life, although I'm glad to see him fall to Trent Johnston for a duck against Ireland as I write.
England deserved the victory, both in the Test and in the series. The fact that they only had one of the top seven run-scorers (Strauss at No. 1) and none of the top three wicket-takers only serves to underline this. It shows an ability to dig their feet in, take wickets when it counted, and scrap an important few runs at the death. Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, and James Anderson (sadly out for his first Test duck at the Oval) contributed so much more to the team than their wickets. How many times were England floundering at 250-7, only to climb past 320? England's tail in the 2007 drubbing did well to make it out to the crease - remember Giles, Harmison, and Panesar flolloping around? England now have a long and determined batting line-up, and there's no wicket that spells the end prematurely. Mind you, they needed it here. Cook (apart from a 90 at Lords), Bopara, and Collingwood (after the all-important innings at Cardiff) failed to get going throughout the series, and the bowlers were sorely needed to prop up Strauss's scores.
As for the Aussies. The fact of the dominance in the statistics shows a failure to strike while the iron was hot, a failure to finish off a team in its death throes, a failure to bowl at Monty Panesar at Cardiff. They showed brilliance in their batting in Cardiff and throughout the whole match in Leeds, but aside from that they were lacklustre. Michael Clarke deserved more than 3 runs in the last match, but when it came to it, the visitors showed their inexperience and, dare I say it of an Australian side, killer instinct. They also played some downright terrible cricket.
Ricky Ponting is the first Australian captain to lead his team to consecutive Ashes losses in England in over 90 years. Will he be back? It's difficult to say, but you get the feeling he'll want one more go. Will he be captain? Still more difficult - Michael Clarke can't be too far off taking up the mantle - a wonderful batsman, fielder, and decent bowler, Pup is definitely the next skipper - his cool and calm, combined with his popularity in the team, speak for themselves.
Andrew Strauss deserves this victory. He came into the captaincy at a difficult time, after the Pietersen/Moores debacle; despite struggling against the West Indies in March, he showed himself up to the task. He's also enjoyed his best batting in his career since he took over. Lest we forget, this is a man who endured a significant break from international cricket only 18 months ago, with many questioning his recall when it came. He was tactically astute in this Ashes series, no more so than at the Oval, where he used his bowlers to the full and led from the front in the field. There seems to be a great team spirit in the England camp, and Strauss must take the credit. His batting was strong all series, discounting a couple of soft dismissals at Headingley, and provided just what was required from a captain and opener. He deserves his spot at top of the runs board, and few will deny his place as man of the series.
Until December 2010.