Stuart Broad is congratulated by his England team-mates as his six wickets help England win another Ashes series (Image | Action)

Stuart Broad is congratulated by his England team-mates as his six wickets help England win another Ashes series (Image | Action)

The 2013 Ashes Series (mark 1) has not always been a display of two world-leading teams giving each other their best shot. There has been inconsistency of umpiring, sub-par batting aplenty and the occasional, inevitable washout.

What this series has had throughout, however, is drama. It was punctuated in characteristic style at Durham this weekend by the stoic Ian Bell, unarguably the outstanding performer of the series thus far.

The English victories at Trent Bridge and, emphatically, at Lord’s spelled rather an early end to the competitiveness of the series, with only rain stopping play at Old Trafford derailing hopes of a whitewash amid improving play from the Australians. Durham, hosting its first Ashes Test match this weekend, then played host to a dramatic Monday evening and England’s overall series victory for the third straight Ashes.

After Chris Rogers and David Warner had set Australia well en route to reaching their target of 299, an incredible session saw Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan carve the tourists apart with Broad taking six wickets for just 20 runs – all in the space of 45 balls – to follow on superbly from his five-wicket haul in Australia’s first innings. For the Nottinghamshire paceman who has toiled but rarely shone (with the ball at least) in 2013, the spell was just rewards for Broad after just six wickets in the previous three Tests.

England’s bowlers have rotated the spoils throughout this series. The metronomic James Anderson took 10 wickets at Trent Bridge, before spinner Graeme Swann all but matched him with nine at Lord’s. It wasn’t until Old Trafford, in a rain-affected and faltering third Test, that Australia and captain Michael Clarke finally found their batting groove.

The tourists cannot help but be disappointed with their performances this summer. With the ball, only Ryan Harris has consistently improved, with Peter Siddle not always reaping the rewards of his undoubted effort and Nathan Lyon’s ability being somewhat exaggerated by England’s struggles against someone who actually spins the ball, after Ashton Agar’s disappointing bowling returns.

Michael Clarke has endured a difficult summer, but his natural competitive streak could be one of Australia's most potent weapons by the autumn (Image | AP)

Michael Clarke has endured a difficult summer, but his natural competitive streak could be one of Australia’s most potent weapons by the autumn (Image | AP)

The Wallabies have fared little better with the bat. They had the best of Old Trafford, where captain Clarke posted a majestic 187, Steve Smith contrived to blow his chances of a ton on 89, and even Mitchell Starc added 66 before the first-innings declaration. Before then, however? Dire.

Australia were 117-9 before Agar and the now long-forgotten Phil Hughes tallied that ridiculous last stand of 163 in the first innings at Trent Bridge. It then took an admirable effort from wicket-keeper Brad Haddin and last man James Pattinson to claw them to within 14 runs of victory, after the top and middle order had mostly failed.

Lord’s was abject. All out for a paltry 128 in the first innings after only Shane Watson made it to 30, Australia again had their bowlers to thank for getting them past 200 in the second.

To look at the scorecards, though, you wouldn’t know England have been so far ahead with the bat. I first wrote “dominant” there, but that would be incorrect – while they have looked in better form for the most part, the hosts have also contrived to throw wickets away and two of their batsmen in particular are under the spotlight at present.

Kevin Pietersen gets himself out quite often, but England have to accept this because they know that every now and then the South-African born slugger will have posted a much-needed century, as he did at Old Trafford. The same cannot be said for Joe Root or Jonny Bairstow. Six of Root’s eight innings have returned fewer than 20 runs, and aside from that glorious, match-winning 180 at Lord’s, he would surely not have lasted through four Tests. Bairstow, in seven trips to the crease, has only got past 30 once and is in real danger of losing his spot ahead of next week’s final Test at the Oval.

Add that to the relatively poor form at present of captain Alastair Cook, Jonathon Trott and Matt Prior, and you have a recipe for disaster. Step forward, then, the man of the series. Ian Bell, with three centuries in the series and an average of 62.5, has been by far the outstanding batsman of the Ashes. Take away his four not out in the rained-off second innings in Manchester, and that average becomes 71, far more than Bairstow and Root combined (58.8).

Ian Bell's batting performances have consistently dug England out of holes in this series; he deserves all the plaudits he has received in the past month (Image | Yahoo)

Ian Bell’s batting performances have consistently dug England out of holes in this series; he deserves all the plaudits he has received in the past month (Image | Yahoo)

The Warwickshire stalwart, so often disregarded by England cynics as a “pretty” batsman who couldn’t score when it mattered most, has emerged in the past couple of years from the shadows of Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood and Pietersen and proven himself as a world-class batsman with the capability to put a team on his back under pressure.

Despite all the number-crunching, the ridiculing of the Australians in the first two Tests and the questions over Cook’s leadership from some (possibly biased) members of the press this week, this is a victory which England should savour. They have retained, and won, the most prized trophy in cricket (and, pound for pound, probably in the world) and will head to Australia in three months’ time knowing they have not even unleashed the likes of Chris Tremlett, Graeme Onions or Monty Panesar on the Wallabies yet. There is plenty of reason for optimism, even if the side’s batting has at times let them down.

Clarke and Australia coach Darren Lehmann, hired in such dramatic fashion on the eve of this tour, have their work cut out for the autumn ahead. The side’s batting order has been in a constant state of flux, and they will also need to address their selection issues in the bowling department. While England have a fairly settled pecking order, the tourists have used seven bowlers plus Watson and the occasional “all-rounder” Smith, with Fawad Ahmed now in line for the one-day series.

Clarke, Lehmann and the Australians won’t want a repeat of this performance at home in the winter; it would cost too many jobs, for a start. The Australian press has been critical enough of this performance on the other side of the world. They would ravage the Wallabies if England were to cruise to a fifth win in six Ashes series.

Put it this way though – would you bet on Cook, Pietersen, Prior and Trott registering one century between them in another five Tests?

Me neither.

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