And so it came to pass that with 20 sessions of the series remaining, England retained the Ashes.
The final morning was something of an anticlimax. With Ryan Harris unable to bat, England required only three wickets for victory. Aussie dreamers may have fantasized about a Mitchell Johnson ton and an 8 hour epic from the gritty Brad Haddin (whose features seem to have been carved from Ayer’s Rock itself).
But it was not to be. Within five minutes Mitchell contrived to inside edge a Tremlett delivery onto his pad and off stump. The champagne was readied. The glasses chilled.
Siddle and Haddin batted for another hour and compiled an entertainingly futile 86 runs from 16 overs which merely served to .prolong the England fans’ revelry.
Prior and then Collingwood “dropped the Ashes” but, as Andy Zaltzman said on commentary, “I’m pretty sure they’ll be picking them up again in a minute”.
The largely English crowd at the MCG sang, gloated, and gloried in the delicious improbability of watching Australia flail hopelessly in their own backyard.
And then the end came. Siddle’s punchy, ugly, wild but worthy innings of 40 was cut short by a decent catch on the boundary by Pieterson off Swann, and Bresnan delivered the coup de grace having “the Good German” Hilfenhaus caught behind for a fortuitous duck..
Strauss, in a generous display of parsimony, hadn’t even bothered taking the new ball and perhaps Cricket Australia can use the savings to compile the necessary paperwork for their selectors’ redundancy notices.
For whilst England’s squad, management and preparation must be lauded to the skies, they have been ably assisted by an Australia in disarray.
Most of the Aussie players have been together now since the 2009 Ashes series, but the incoherence in individual selection decisions (the dropping of Hauritz, the picking of Doherty, then Beer, the resting of Johnson for one match, the call up for a hopelessly out of shape Bollinger, the lack of a proper number 6 or opener to replace Katich) has rendered the once mighty Ponting impotent, exposed and broken.
For sure he’s not been helped by the poor form of his vice captain. Indeed of his entire top 6 only two men average above 25. Only once before in Ashes history has this happened to Australia.
By contrast England’s batsmen, with the irritating exception of Perth and Collingwood, have been in prime nick.
For only the second time in Ashes series England have scored over 500 in three test matches and there is still Sydney to come.
Perhaps the starkest indication of England’s dominance is that their wickets are being taken at an average of a full 19 runs apiece more across the series. That’s an average advantage of 380 runs per match.
This hasn’t been a series between two well matched teams. On the contrary, England are streets ahead of their hosts in every department.
Whether that is because Australia are a side for whom 4th in the world is as flattering a title as Hitler’s Time’s man of the year award in 1938, or because England are now a very good side will be debated probably until India visit England in the summer of 2011.
It’s probably a bit of both. And we shouldn’t forget England’s luck in this series. At the MCG they bowled first in cloudy conditions, batted under clear skies, and racked up an unassailable lead.
They won tosses that counted, but had the bravery to insert their hosts. They caught mostly what came to them and bowled fiercely disciplined lengths (except, again, at Perth).
However, the series is still up for grabs. Only when the Ashes is at stake do supporters tend to fixate more on their acquisition or retention. For every other test series it is the winning that counts, and England will desperately want to leave with a 3-1 victory, if for no other reason than the positive effect it will have on their ICC test ranking.
Already up to number 3, if they beat Sri Lanka and India in the summer they could take top spot. No one was predicting that 18 months ago.
For Australia it will be fascinating to see how they go about selecting their side for Sydney. Will they wield the axe on Clarke, Ponting (perhaps hiding behind his finger injury), Smith, Hughes, Hilfenhaus and Johnson (again)? Who will skipper if Ponting is left out? Can they really hope to go toe to toe on a turning track with Michael Beer as their frontline spinner against the number 2 bowler in the world?
You can be sure that 20 or 30 names will be touted as necessary saviours of Aussie cricket. But therein lies their problem. There really are no stand out candidates to replace the current under performers. Perhaps Khwaja will get a long anticipated call up. I’d get David Hussey in the side right away. But the solutions are far from obvious.
I can’t pretend not to enjoy watching the Aussies flap about like a reluctant Samurai committing hara-kiri, but for the gloating really to have meaning I do hope they can alight upon a coherent plan for moving ahead, because when they next visit England in 2013 I want England’s win not to be overshadowed by the incompetence of their hapless opponents.