Ashes 2023

Australia retained the Ashes after five-match Test series in England in 2023 was drawn 2-2. Gideon Haigh's series review appeared in the 2024 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

Test matches (5): England 2 (9pts), Australia 2 (18pts)

Ashes series are keenly anticipated. Not often do they meet those expectations; almost never do they exceed them. Yet the 2023 edition defeated the speculations of the most outlandish seer. They lacked only a definitive outcome: for just the seventh time in 73 contests, the series was squared. Australia and England each won two Tests, and narrowly – games that could have gone the other way until late on. The only genuinely one-sided match was drawn, after nearly two days of rain at Manchester. Despite failing to regain the Ashes, the Englishmen sounded buoyant at the conclusion of the series; despite the Australians prolonging their custody of the urn, their celebrations were muted.

The series had loomed as a contrast of styles: Australia’s proficient orthodoxies, honed over the cycle of the World Test Championship in which they had just been crowned winners, versus England’s up-and-at-’em Bazball evangelism, affirmed by 11 victories in their 13 preceding Tests. It did not always play out like that: at Lord’s, their poorest Test, England lost their way with some self-indulgent shots, then resorted to monotonous stretches of short-pitched bowling that appeared at odds with their avowed superordinate goal of saving Test cricket. But Australia clearly came into the series in the brace position, concerned about the hosts’ smaller boundaries and frictionless outfields, and it quickly became a contest between the attacking mandates of Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum, and the chiefly defensive modalities of Pat Cummins and coach Andrew McDonald – decided, increasingly, in favour of the former.

At times, the teams seemed involved in different games, or at least the same game but with divergent objectives: England’s run-rate of 4.74 was the fastest in an Ashes series; Australia’s run-rate of 3.35 was their third-slowest in Ashes series this millennium. These rivals have never known a greater scoring-rate discrepancy. As a proportion, England’s batters let go half as many deliveries as their Australian counterparts, and grudged a maiden only once every 19 overs versus one in five. The contrast was sharpest between respective opening batters: where Usman Khawaja’s 496 runs took 1,263 balls, Zak Crawley’s 480 took 541.

It was Crawley who set the tone, by driving the first delivery of the series, from Cummins, on the up through cover – just as Mitchell Starc had in 2021/22 by bowling Rory Burns at the Gabba. Starc, in fact, was left out of the first Test, just as Stuart Broad and James Anderson had been in Brisbane – an early hint of Australian defensiveness. The traditional Ashes roles of Australia the aggressor and England the resister were often reversed. Crawley, who started with an average of 28 from 34 Tests and a propensity for exasperating firm-footed nicks, proved perhaps the greatest revelation, if not to his tireless booster McCullum. But in a way he proved everyone wrong. Even McCullum had argued that Crawley’s “skill set is not to be a consistent cricketer”; in fact, he contributed meaningfully to every Test, failing only twice to pass 20, establishing a breezy rapport with his opening partner, Ben Duckett, and catching expertly at slip. His 189 off 182 balls at Old Trafford was the series’ highest score.

England had by then been enhanced by a second crucial and complementary partnership. As he had been in 2021/22, Mark Wood was the fastest bowler on either side; as he had not been, he was deployed in a genuine shock capacity, and from his first spell at Headingley jarred the bat and jolted the crowd. When he bowled the hitherto impassable Khawaja, it was clear that the wait for Wood to recover from a sore elbow had been worth it.

Chris Woakes had been a cipher in his previous Ashes Tests, and certainly held few terrors in Australia 18 months earlier, when his six wickets had cost 55 each. With a Dukes ball and an aggressive intent, however, he was a different proposition, making up for the relative ineffectiveness of Anderson – whose five wickets had come at 85 – with long, frugal and probing spells. Woakes’s 19 wickets cost 18 each, his overs 3.04. He and Wood, close friends, also contributed crucially with the bat, at Headingley, where their gleeful clumping closed out the match, and at The Oval, where first-innings runs were scarce.

Their inclusion was timely in a series in which fatigue and attrition were key factors: including the World Test Championship final, Australia played six Tests in 55 days; including their one-off game against Ireland at Lord’s, England six in 61. On this relentless route march, one who fell by the wayside could not be adequately replaced: with England 181 for one at Lord’s, Nathan Lyon ran for a top edge and pulled up short, as though hit by a sniper’s bullet. Apart from a cameo when he dragged his badly injured calf to the crease for the sake of a few extra runs two days later, he was not seen again, damaging the familiar Australian stability and orderliness in the field.

Cummins had never led his country without his No. 1 slow bowler; he was unable to cobble much together from the spare-parts overs of Cameron Green, Mitchell Marsh and Travis Head (10 wickets at 49, and more than five an over), and proved so tentative in his captaincy of Lyon’s understudy, Todd Murphy, that Australia went into Old Trafford without a specialist spinner.

Recalled for The Oval, Murphy took half a dozen good wickets and made useful runs. But Cummins appeared reluctant to take the pace off as a scheme for disrupting England’s rhythm: less than one in five of Australia’s overs were bowled by spinners.

Lyon’s loss to Australia was some balm for Jack Leach’s absence from the England team with a stress fracture of the lower back. They took the temporary measure of cajoling Moeen Ali out of Test retirement after two years – a move which paid off unforeseeably when he volunteered a second role as a kind of traffic bollard at No. 3 after Ollie Pope dislocated a shoulder. Ali took on his tasks gamely, despite a lack of preparation that left his spinning finger raw from the abrasive seam of the red ball, then led on to a groin injury, not to mention the ration of dragdowns and full tosses unavoidable for one missing so long. His dismissals of an impatient Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith at Headingley, and of Travis Head at The Oval, opened irreparable wounds in the Australian flank.

This was a comparatively senior Ashes, with 18 of 28 players the far side of 30. Murphy, Duckett, Harry Brook and Josh Tongue were the only Ashes newcomers. It made for the continuation of multiple long-running sagas. Broad, possibly the last to be picked for Edgbaston, after a five-for against Carey throws down the stumps at Lord’s – the talking point of the summer. Ireland, made his ninth Ashes one of his best, bowling more overs than anyone. He energised almost everything he touched, including bails, which in a classic shithousery he twice swapped over at The Oval, thinking it an Australian superstition – wickets followed. He hit the bat hard, found any lateral movement, pranced like a warhorse and bowled like a thoroughbred. In the fifth Test, he completed a career of 604 wickets, an England-record 153 in the Ashes, with a vintage spell and orbital celebrations.

Broad’s 22 wickets included his old sparring partner, David Warner, only three times out of 10, after seven out of 10 four years earlier (Woakes instead removed Warner in each of the last four innings). Twice, he battled to a half-century, but he finished his fourth and final Ashes tour without a Test century in England, and an average of 26 from 19 matches versus an average of nearly 49 everywhere else – a record comparable with Doug Walters.

Broad also got rid of Khawaja three times, his disposal an altogether bigger deal: bowling him with a no-ball at Edgbaston was one of the few feet Broad put wrong all summer. Khawaja proved that an English record can be put to rights. Before the series, he had played seven Tests on English soil for one fifty and an average of 17; at Edgbaston, he set like concrete, spending more than 13 hours over 141 and 65, which won him the match award. Khawaja did sometimes grow passive, rapt in his defensive arts, as if staging a personal protest against the ostentation and uproar of Bazball; when his sit-in at The Oval ended, Australian resistance melted away. But there was much to admire about his concentration, and no Australian had faced as many deliveries in an Ashes in England for 30 years.

The series represented a renewal of the low-key, decade-long rivalry of Joe Root and Smith, decided at first in Root’s favour but more recently in Smith’s, by growing distances. Here was some redress: Root had his best Ashes since 2015, with batting of refreshing devilment; apart from his match award at Lord’s, Smith had little to remember the series by, and his consort Labuschagne retreated in lockstep. Had England been told in advance that those two would contribute barely 700 in 20 hits, they would have been happy.

A curious head-to-head developed, meanwhile, between wicketkeepers Jonny Bairstow and Alex Carey, accentuated by their roles in the incident in England’s second innings at Lord’s, where Bairstow wandered absent-mindedly out of his ground and was stumped by an alert underarm from Carey. There ensued a pitiful attempt to turn this into a breach of cricket’s politesse; it was as though everyone had been spoiling for a bit of a sook, with MCC members making a right old exhibition of themselves. The positive to emerge was that, thanks to the general robustness of Anglo-Australian relations, debate stayed the right side of stupid v harmful; it might have been different had an Indian keeper done the same at Bairstow’s expense. The disappointment was the licence it gave obnoxious pseudo-patriots, who needlessly soured the atmosphere in the crowds at subsequent matches.

Whether the blameless Carey was affected by the mindless booing is unknowable, but his performance tapered. Bairstow’s, by contrast, improved, if from a low base: at the outset, he was shockingly sloppy with the gloves, and it must be doubted whether he was fully fit after such a long lay-off with a broken leg, which did little to silence those who felt Ben Foakes should have kept wicket instead. But Bairstow made forthright contributions with the bat at Edgbaston, Old Trafford and The Oval, collaring a tiring attack Gilchrist-fashion, and on the last day of the series was flawless in taking four catches.

With an eye to future Ashes, the fortunes of Brook and Green, both 24 and destined for a decade as rivals, also caught the imagination. Brook didn’t quite live up to his exalted billing, though four half-centuries included a poised hand at Headingley that kept England ahead on the last day. Coming off a maiden Test century at Ahmedabad and a lucrative IPL season for Mumbai Indians, Green suffered the first real check of his career, tense and rigid with the bat and ineffectual with the ball. Neither of the seamers who had emerged during the previous Ashes, Ollie Robinson and Scott Boland, had much impact either. Robinson was flattered by his figures, Boland unflattered by his. Robinson’s pace was down, again casting doubt on his fitness; Boland was unable to obtain any encouragement from the Dukes ball.

The most captivating rivalry was between Stokes and Cummins. Seldom have two captains so personified their teams and their approaches. Stokes had imbued his men with some of his dauntlessness and determination; Cummins remained the same smiling, streamlined and seemingly personable figure as he did on appointment in November 2021. The former is about command, the latter control. And it is fair to say that control was increasingly commanded in these Ashes, that Australia proposed and England disposed.

Cummins’s fortitude with the bat at Edgbaston dragged Australia to the tightest of wins, and his compelling spell on the fourth evening at Lord’s left England too much ground to make up. But Australia in the field seemed content to wait and hang in, to a point at Old Trafford where they were powerless, unable even to bowl to one side of the ground, and flat-footed by what felt like a succession of T20 innings. And for all the defensive emplacements Australia adopted, Starc gave up nearly five an over, and Cummins nearly 38 per wicket.

Australia got a couple of selection fillips. For Boland, they recalled Starc, who was expensive but the leading wicket-taker, with 23; when a minor strain ruled Green out at Leeds, Marsh came in and made a poised and powerful century. After being player of the final in the World Test Championship, Head also contributed steadily, though restrained by England’s barrages. But to these and other gambits Stokes was prepared to commit with utter conviction. To be doing something, whatever it is, is always better than merely trying to keep it tight, which isn’t much of anything. England’s cricket was red-blooded, even if occasionally red-misted; by comparison, Australia occasionally looked anaemic. They radiated none of the intimidation of previous visiting sides; they had no natural swagger.

Stokes made his most momentous individual contribution in the second innings at Lord’s: an epic of 155 from 214 balls with nine fours and nine sixes, so that even in the shadow of defeat he was able to argue for the prospect of victory. With Lyon heading home, Australia looked as vulnerable as a team with a 2–0 lead can. At Leeds, with Wood the catalyst, Stokes was able to play a decisive innings: 80 from 108 balls with five sixes, all off Murphy. Having narrowed a deficit that had been expected to yawn, England then retarded Australia as they tried to pull away. The cricket exploded at the end of the third day when a long-suffering crowd, hanging on despite the rain, were rewarded with a hectic session in which Australia flailed 108 and lost six wickets, before England wiped 27 in five overs off a target of 251. On the last day, they marched to victory in 50, as though seeing through an ODI chase, and at Old Trafford dominated the tourists as they have not for a decade and more.

It is fair to ask what went wrong for England, given that they were able only to draw the series, despite winning four tosses and having the better of the conditions more often; they were further aided on the last day at The Oval by a fortuitous ball change, replacing one that had done nothing with another that for a period did plenty. In hindsight, however, England paid for earlier failures of detail: a rustiness in their outcricket and a few soft dismissals at Edgbaston; no fewer than 74 extras at Lord’s, including 25 in no-balls and wides.

This did not help when it came to a perennial bane: over-rates. They were so lacklustre that England lost 19 of the 28 World Test Championship points they had earned, as well as percentages of their match fees ranging from ten to 45 for the four Tests in which they fell short. Australia lost 10 points for being 10 overs short at Old Trafford, escaping more lightly because the ICC, after being lobbied by Khawaja, a board member of the Australian Cricketers’ Assocation, decided mid-series that fines would kick in only when innings lasted longer than 80 overs – and England’s innings tended to finish sooner than that. The result, that England wrung just nine points from five Tests, compared with Australia’s 18, indicted the system. Where over-rates are concerned, the ICC are the epitome of the fanatic, redoubling their efforts having forgotten their aims; the result was a further absurd distortion of an already absurdly distorted points system.

From the age profile of each team, and the long gap to the next Ashes in Australia, it seemed likely that not only Broad and Ali were entering their twilight. Anderson will surely not be taking the new ball for England aged 43 in 2025-26; it’s possible these were the last Ashes Tests for Bairstow and Woakes, who will both be 36. Warner had already announced his departure after the 2023/24 Australian summer; when the Ashes come again, Lyon and Khawaja will be 38, Smith and Boland 36, Starc 35. Above all, the Ashes may have seen the last of Stokes, whose body after 97 Tests is a testament to the skilled ministrations of England’s medical staff. Was this Stokes’s Ashes, as they were Botham’s in 1981 and Flintoff’s in 2005? One fancies he would be uncomfortable with the mantle. A series shared may even suit his inclusive personality better.

Australia touring party: *PJ Cummins, SM Boland, AT Carey, CD Green, MS Harris, JR Hazlewood, TM Head, JP Inglis, UT Khawaja, M Labuschagne, NM Lyon, MR Marsh, TR Murphy, MG Neser, JJ Peirson, MT Renshaw, SPD Smith, MA Starc, DA Warner. Inglis returned home before the second Test, for the birth of his first child, and was replaced by Peirson. After the match, Lyon flew home with a calf injury, Renshaw was released from the squad, and Neser added.
Head coach: AB McDonald. Assistant coaches: AP Borovec, MJ di Venuto, DL Vettori. Doctor: L Golding. Physiotherapist: N Jones. Massage therapist: L Murray. Team operations manager: C Wightman. Communications manager: C Hitchcock. Security manager: FA Dimasi.

Follow Wisden for all updates, including live scores, match stats, quizzes and more. Stay up to date with the latest cricket news, player updates, team standings, match highlights, video analysis and live match odds.