Australia’s 18-year wait to retain the Ashes urn on English soil came to an end on Sunday when the visitors wrapped up a 185-run win in the fourth Test at Manchester to take a 2-1 lead in the five-match series.
One man above them all has led Australia’s charge in England, with Steve Smith dominating the headlines on his Test return after a near 16-month absence. England skipper Joe Root has gone as far as to term the Australia batsman as the real difference between the two sides in the series.
“Both batting sides have very experienced players who have not performed how they would have liked, and that tells a story by itself,” the England captain said after the Old Trafford defeat.
“Take Steve Smith out and it would be very similar from both teams.”
While Smith’s contributions have been gigantic, there are others in the Australia squad who have played their part in the team’s triumph in England.
Here, we look at the four key men including Smith who have been largely responsible for Australia retaining the urn.
The 28-year-old was not risked by Australia in the recent World Cup in England with the Ashes in mind as he fully recovered from a back injury, and that move has paid off handsomely with Hazlewood causing utter mayhem with the ball.
The seamer was not picked in the playing XI for the series opener at Edgbaston with James Pattinson preferred instead, but the impact he has created since coming into the side has been nothing short of stellar.
In just three Tests, Hazlewood has claimed 18 wickets at an average of less than 17 and he is only behind Pat Cummins (22) and Stuart Broad (19) in the wicket-taking charts.
The right-armed bowler was near unplayable at Headingley where he claimed a match-haul of nine wickets and was unfortunate to still end up on the losing side. He was in top form at Manchester as well with his six wickets pivotal to Australia’s win.
England might be regretting that Jofra Archer bouncer to Smith at Lord’s with his concussion replacement Marnus Labuschagne turning out to be an equally formidable opponent.
The 25-year-old emerged unscathed from his tough Ashes baptism with a match-saving half-century in the second innings at Lord’s and has since followed it up with three more fifties on the bounce.
He has comfortably been the second-most assured batsman in the Australia side, arguably even the series, with his compact and textbook technique. In an Ashes series where both batting units have under-performed severely, Labuschagne’s 291 runs at an average over 58 have been worth their weight in gold.
His part-time leg-spin helped the visitors clinch victory at Manchester just when it looked like England would escape with a draw to further cement his Ashes 2019 legacy, which will not be forgotten any time soon by Australian fans.
The Australia pacer is enjoying the best-ever series of his career and that is saying something considering the success he has had since making his comeback in 2017.
In a performance fully deserving of the No1 ICC Test ranking he currently holds, Cummins has established himself as the undisputed leader of Australia’s pace attack with 22 wickets at a staggering average of only 17.41.
His delivery to knock Joe Root’s off-stump out of the ground at Old Trafford will go down as the defining delivery of the series, just like a certain Ryan Harris beauty to dismiss then England skipper Alastair Cook at Perth in 2014.
Playing four Tests on the bounce with the workload of Cummins is no mean feat either with the pacer bowling a total of 164 overs so far in the series. Only off-spinner Nathan Lyon has bowled more overs than Cummins in this Ashes, with the pacer being Tim Paine’s go-to man for every difficult situation.
It has, without a shadow of a doubt, been Steve Smith’s Ashes with the former skipper rewriting the record books on his Test return for Australia. He has been greeted with boos all summer long by England’s fans but that has only spurred him on to rack up a staggering 671 runs in just five innings.
His knock of 82 in the second innings at Manchester is the lowest he has achieved in the series so far and he has been putting up numbers not seen since the days of the great Sir Don Bradman. The fact that most batsmen from either side have struggled massively in the series makes Smith’s prolific form all the more remarkable and he has deservedly reclaimed his No1 ranking from Virat Kohli on the back of his displays.
For Smith to become the leading run-scorer in Tests in 2019, after just three appearances and a seven-month head-start for other batsmen, is as ridiculous as it gets. England will shudder to think the kind of run-tally Smith would have put up had he not missed the Headingley Test due to a concussion.
It is not a stretch to think that Smith would have been on course to break Don Bradman’s record of 974 runs in the 1930 Ashes had he not been forced to miss three innings in the ongoing series due to the Archer bouncer.
Another chapter in the incredible rise of Afghanistan cricket was added on Monday at Chittagong when Rashid Khan had Soumya Sarkar caught at short-leg to spark wild jubilation.
That wicket in the fading light wrapped up a 224-run run win for Afghanistan in the one-off clash against Bangladesh, meaning they have now won two of the three Tests they have featured in since gaining full ICC membership last year.
The fact that it took Bangladesh nearly nine years and 60 Tests to record their second win in the format puts Afghanistan’s meteoric rise into context. That no other side in history apart from Australia has managed to win two out of their first three Tests further vindicates their phenomenal achievement.
Throughout their sensational rise through the ranks in international cricket, Afghanistan have proven that they are quick learners and that very same trait is now shining in their foray into five-day cricket.
Their introduction to Test cricket was as harsh as they come with the debutants being crushed by an innings and 262 runs by India at Bengaluru last year. That comprehensive defeat seemingly exposed the massive gulf that existed between them and the top international sides in the world, but victories over Ireland and now Bangladesh since shows how quickly they have found their footing in red-ball cricket.
Afghanistan have registered their second Test win in just their third Test match.— ICC (@ICC) September 9, 2019
They are the joint quickest team to the landmark, equalling Australia who picked up their second Test victory all the way back in 1879.#BANvAFG pic.twitter.com/ko3BoULhbj
It is hard to believe that Afghanistan were languishing in Division Five of the ICC World Cricket League just over a decade ago and they have taken barely any time at all to establish themselves as a top-10 side in all three formats of the international game.
Their remarkable journey has seen them qualify for every T20 World Cup since 2010 while their appearance in England for the 2019 World Cup was their second-ever in the 50-over format. The most heartwarming aspect of their success is that it has come in the face of massive adversity amidst a tumultuous period in the country’s history.
A large part of the current squad including skipper Rashid honed their cricket skills in refugee camps of Peshawar, Pakistan in the backdrop of never-ending conflicts and war back home in Afghanistan. Amidst the devastation brought on by war and terror, the cricket team’s rise to global stardom over the last decade has been a cause of immense pride for the citizens of Afghanistan.
While their rise has been electric, it hasn’t been all perfect as their most recent World Cup campaign in England just showed. The entire campaign was fraught with controversies with a last-minute captaincy change just weeks before the start of the tournament triggering a sequence of events that would see them lose all nine matches to finish last.
But just when the wheels were starting to come off in Afghanistan’s incredible story, they have once again sent a timely reminder as to why they are here to stay at the international level. The team management and board has swiftly moved on from that disastrous World Cup campaign with 20-year-old Rashid being appointed as skipper across all three formats.
Hot-weather training camps in Abu Dhabi and then Chittagong before the one-off Test against Bangladesh has paid dividends for Afghanistan, with their extensive levels of preparation coming to the fore in the colossal 224-run win. In comparison, Bangladesh were caught napping with their lackadaisical preparations for the Test and paid the ultimate price in front of their home fans.
Rashid – the youngest-ever captain in Test history – seems like the perfect candidate to usher in the next chapter of Afghanistan’s glorious rise with an equally youthful looking squad at his disposal. While his own match-winning all-round display was a big positive to take for Afghanistan from their win, there were other youngsters who made significant contributions as well.
The 17-year-old Ibrahim Zadran impressed with the bat with a fine 87 in the second innings while 20-year-old Zahir Khan looked promising with his leg-spin. With 19-year-old Qais Ahmed and mystery spinner Mujeeb ur Rahman also in the mix, there is the making of a strong young core for the Afghanistan Test outfit which could become the team’s backbone over the next decade.
Their phenomenal rise at the senior level has been mirrored at the junior level as well with the U19 outfit making its mark in various tournaments. With such positive signs from all quarters, the future is indeed looking bright for Afghanistan cricket and they will be eyeing another giant scalp in the form of West Indies when they host the Caribbean side in a one-off Test later this year.
Veteran all-rounder Mohammad Nabi has lauded Rashid Khan’s aggressive captaincy following Afghanistan’s historic Test win over Bangladesh at Chattogram.
Rashid and his men beat the hosts by 224 runs in the one-off Test to record their second win in the format in just three appearances.
Nabi, who made his final Test appearance for Afghanistan in the clash, praised Rashid’s leadership in the big win over Bangladesh while blaming a late captaincy change as the reason behind the team’s dismal display in the 2019 World Cup.
Having appointed Gulbadin Naib as the ODI skipper just weeks before the start of the tournament, Afghanistan eventually went on to finish bottom of the table after losing all nine games in England.
“It is all about team combination,” Nabi said after Bangladesh’s win at Chattogram.
“In the World Cup, the board members changed the old captain and that’s why the combination wasn’t that good. With Rashid as captain, Asghar (Afghan) and I support him a lot. He prepared for the role too.
“If you change the captain before the World Cup, how can you prepare the team? He (Naib) never captained in his life, how can he lead a team in the World Cup? That’s why it was tough, and the boys didn’t perform in the World Cup. We got close against India, Pakistan and West Indies but now it has totally changed. We are giving chances to the youngsters; three debuted in the Test and there will be many debuts in the T20s too.”
A Captain’s performance from @rashidkhan_19 , who lead from the front taking 11 wickets in the match , seals a historic Test victory for Afghanistan beating @BCBtigers by 224 runs in the One-off Test at Chattogram.#AFGvBAN @Farhan_YusEfzai pic.twitter.com/vHIbiTZthe— Afghanistan Cricket Board (@ACBofficials) September 9, 2019
Following the team’s dismal World Cup campaign in England, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) opted for another captaincy change with Rashid being appointed as skipper across all three international formats.
The star leg-spinner led from the front in his first Test as Afghanistan skipper with a match-haul of 11 wickets along with a vital half-century with the bat in the first-innings. Nabi believes that the 20-year-old spinner is the right man to lead a youthful Afghanistan side going forward.
“We are focusing on the youngsters,” Nabi said.
“We have put a young captain in-charge, and he is aggressive. He is the No. 1 bowler in the world as well. That’s why we all support the captain.
“Our chairman and CEO, our board members support the team.”
Having emerged victorious in the one-off Test, Afghanistan will now turn their attentions to the T20 tri-series also involving hosts Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Rashid and his men are due to take on Zimbabwe at Dhaka in the tri-series opener on September 14.