Alastair Cook (330 runs at 37, 9 cts) – Mission accomplished. He led his team to Ashes success, something even he felt was beyond them when the coin went into the air at Cardiff. He also showed that England’s new attitude was no one-off experiment reciprocating Brendan McCullum’s smiling Black Caps’ approach back in May, but a real attempt to loosen up, enjoy the game and re-connect to a public who yearn not just for wins, but for heroes. His young side need to develop some of his own obstinacy when the chips are down and a tough winter lies in store to test exactly that quality, but he has men about him who know how to win Test matches and Test series. His own batting was short of its best, but, after the 18 months he’s been through, we should perhaps be grateful that he knew which umpire to ask for a guard and not quibble too much about his continuing long wait for a home Ashes century.
Adam Lyth (115 runs at 13, 6 cts) – Stayed true to the approach that got him into the Test team, looking to take the attack to the bowlers when the ball was hard and the field was up, but found that international bowlers could locate the edge of his bat more often than those a notch or two below in the county game. Like his predecessor as Cook’s opening partner in England, Sam Robson, he can expect a return to domestic cricket with the prospect of more Tests a rather distant hope. Caught well and seems a decent team man, he may well soon be captain at Yorkshire, a role that might also suit him come England A tours.
Ian Bell (215 runs at 27, 7 cts) – Played only three innings of any substance, but those half-centuries were critical in securing the crucial opening win at Cardiff and the big momentum shifter at Edgbaston, where he rose to the challenge of filling England’s tricky Number Three slot largely against pundits’ and fans’ expectations. Not much though in the other three Tests and. with his remarkable 2013 Ashes campaign now fading in the memory, England’s most enigmatic player finds a growing grumbling about his place in the team that needs to be quashed yet again. But he has five Ashes wins to his credit and his critics (except one, initials ITB) don’t.
Gary Ballance (98 runs at 25, 2 cts) – In the first innings of the First Test, he had 16 of England’s 43-3 when Joe Root took guard. He went on to make 61 as England wrested back the advantage in tricky batting conditions, the Yorkies’ partnership worth 153 runs – but much, much more psychologically. His quirky technique produced three more failures and a return to county cricket, but we have not heard the last of him as a Test match batsman.
Joe Root (460 runs at 58, 4 wkts at 34, 8 cts) – What if Brad Haddin had held on to that edge in the First Test? But he didn’t, and Root did what good players do – took advantage of an opponent’s error, getting on with it straight away to post a brilliant, fearless, tone-setting 134, giving England’s late order the chance to build a platform for the bowlers. Another hundred on that unforgettable first day at Trent Bridge almost guaranteed that The Ashes would be won – and secured his position as the officially recognised best batsman in the world, the culmination of an extraordinary run of form that rescued a career that had stalled in Australia in 2013-14. The new vice-captain, he revelled in the responsibility and the higher profile that came with it, connecting with the fans, the outward expression of a team finally comfortable in its own skin. A worthy successor to the dynasty of ultra-tough England cricketers who learned the game in Yorkshire, he’s a man whose boyish looks and ready smile fool nobody – here is the 21st century version of Boycott, Illingworth, Vaughan…
Jonny Bairstow (118 runs at 30, 0 cts) – Returned to Test cricket on the back of an avalanche of runs in the county game and a brilliant innings in England’s white ball cricket – so his confidence was high. He really only showed that form in a 74 on the first day at Trent Bridge, a good knock barely noticed in the backwash of Stuart Broad’s 8-15 and Joe Root’s century. His baseball stance, and a bat that seems too often to be coming across the ball as he aims into the legside, gives heart to any bowler at the top of his run up, as does a history of finding unusual ways to get out. Still a work in progress, but possibly a talent more suited to white ball cricket (especially as a relief wicketkeeper for Jos Buttler) than the unforgiving cauldron of the Test arena.
Ben Stokes (201 runs at 25, 11 wkts at 33, 6cts) – A man who can raise English spirits by his mere presence, he is becoming this generation’s Flintoff or Botham. Like those titans, he doesn’t have the figures of a Kallis or a Sobers – and never will – but he always threatens to seize a game and shape it to his own ends, with bat, ball or in the field. Chipped in with runs rather than finding a match dominating innings, but his six second innings wickets at Trent Bridge brought The Ashes home. And then there was that catch that provoked that reaction, the series summed up by that face.
Jos Buttler (120 runs at 17, 12cts) – Perhaps fortunate that his dismal form with the bat, born of feet that just refuse to move towards the ball, was largely ignored in the euphoria surrounding England’s unexpected glory, but he knows much more is required of him, his enormous potential still glimpsed at rather than flowering. Curiously, his footwork, especially standing up, has improved significantly when wearing the gloves, where he shows signs of following Matt Prior and Alec Stewart in making the journey from competence to excellence behind the stumps.
Moeen Ali (293 runs at 42, 12 wkts at 46, 2 cts) – He turned the ball and took his share of wickets, especially troubling the left-handers with the off-spinner’s best friend, the DRS, to back him up. But his average and economy rate demonstrate the fact that he sends down too many four balls. If that makes a captain uneasy, what a comforting presence he is at Number Eight, as classy an occupant of that slot since Shaun Pollock – though he needs to develop a better technique to deal with the short ball if he is to realise his full potential with the bat. His temperament is suited to batting with the tail in the crucial role of taking a good score into a winning one or improving a poor score into a competitive total. Nevertheless, he is in real danger of offering too much to the team to drop but not enough to select – as contrary as that sounds!
Stuart Broad (134 runs at 19, 21 wkts at 21, 1 ct) – After barely raising a gallop during the May tour to the West Indies, he came roaring back to his best when spying the Australian crest 22 yards away. Like many a tall bowler, he needs to build the rhythm to get the long levers working in harmony, but when he does, the ball neither sinks into the pitch short of a length nor floats down the track to be driven: it travels far enough to begin to swing, then kisses the surface sufficiently to seam. And that length proved to be catnip to the Australian batsmen who were mesmerised at times, pulled on to the front foot following balls they should have left and leaving balls they should have played. Often bowled superbly without reward but got full value at Trent Bridge where his 9.3-5-15-8 was one of the all-time great spells of Ashes bowling.
Mark Wood (103 runs at 26, 10 wkts at 39, 0 ct) – The Durham man retains his wonderfully uncomplicated approach to the game, getting it down there fast and straight with the ball and hitting it hard with the bat. He didn’t produce a match-turning spell, but kept running in and never made it easy for the batsmen. His infectious, eccentric personality is a real asset for fans tired of the discourse of game plans followed and skills executed and, if he can stay fit and get the ball to reverse a little in favourable conditions, we might be seeing his invisible horse galloping for a few years yet.
Steven Finn (9 runs without dismissal, 12 wkts at 23, 0 ct) – Brought back for Edgbaston and immediately did what he has so often done for England – took wickets. On his latest return, he looked much more at ease, neither searching for rhythm nor appearing to think more about his run up than his action – though he still “takes wickets” with no balls! Might never become the Ambrose or Morkel that he once promised to be, but he has over 100 Test wickets at a very good strike rate and power to add. A big tour to South Africa looms.
Jimmy Anderson (11 runs at 3, 10 wkts at 28, 3 cts) – Did what he does when there’s just a bit of lateral movement available and that was enough for Australia to play him as if he had just landed from Mars. Injury ruled him out of the last two Tests of the series, but by then England were 2-1 up and had the momentum (which really mattered), and Australia’s selectors were forced to go looking for batting options. He wasn’t missed in the extraordinary Fourth Test, but the Fifth might have been a better indicator of England’s future as the bowling unit. shorn of their leader, conceded 332 runs before taking the fourth wicket.