The main question posed to both captains after the series draw in the Women’s Ashes was – have England closed the gap on all-round Australia?
Australia came to the UK this summer regarded by many as one of the best sides in the sport.
They left with the Ashes urn still in their possession but after losing both white ball series against England, their one day series loss being their first in a bilateral competition since 2013.
So how did England achieve what many thought was impossible?
Lewis improves every department
‘Bazball’ is the buzz of the English summer in men’s cricket, and the style of play that was so successful for Ben Stokes’ team has been adapted and adopted by captain Heather Knight and her team.
The man who introduced this is head coach Jon Lewis, who was part of Brendan McCullum’s revolution before taking charge of the women’s team.
Neither McCullum nor Lewis like the term Bazball – or ‘Jonball’ as Lewis’ variation – but there is little doubt that they have transformed the way England’s men and women play their cricket.
In its simplest form, it involves a controlled attack with the bat and a desire to take every opposition goal with the ball.
Bowlers should be proactive rather than reactive. Defensive areas, lines and distances do not fly directly.
Under Lewis, England’s Test, current one-day international and T20 batting rates have improved, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear that the positive option is as controlled as it is successful.
England’s Test strike rate (58.81) in the one-off against Australia was higher than in any other record-breaking Test.
That’s more than their strike rate of 54.95 in the last Ashes series below, and well ahead of the 39.66 runs England scored in their previous home Ashes series in 2019.
Interestingly, however, England played less attack than in Australia’s most recent Ashes Test (43% compared to 50%), underscoring the McCullum/Lewis theory of clarity rather than carelessness
In the T20s, for the second series in a row, England scored more than eight overs, never having reached such numbers (see red bars in the chart below).
England T20 run rates
One of the biggest success stories of Lewis’ reign is 32-year-old batter Danni Wyatt.
Often regarded as a white-ball specialist, she was given her Test debut this summer and her strike rate has improved in T20 and ODI cricket under Lewis.
She finished the one-day series with a confident 43 off 25 balls which was crucial in England’s victory.
Danni Wyatt strike rates
* No ODIs played in 2020
Shine sisters spin again
England managed to lose the solitary Test and the first T20 at the same time as the recall of Charlie Dean and the hosts going with three spinners, Sophie Ecclestone and Sarah Glenn as the other two.
A key strength of England is the fact that you offer something different. Number one is Ecclestone the left-arm spinner, Glenn a leg-spinner and Dean a spinner.
Since Lewis took over, England’s spinners have excelled in all formats. They took 18 wickets at an average of 11.27 on the winter tour to the West Indies, 22 at 14.68 in the T20 World Cup in South Africa – a country not particularly well-suited to spin bowling – and in every game Ashes this summer they were. you have 31 wickets.
England’s spinners were even more expensive in this year’s Ashes.
“It helps when you have the best spinner in the world (Sophie Ecclestone) by your side,” said Alex Hartley, England’s World Cup winner.
“England are now backing Sarah Glenn in ODI cricket as well, so that’s a change.
“In the spin department, England and Australia are evenly matched, but Ecclestone gives England such an edge.”
In a classic case of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, Australia turned to leg-spinner Alana King in Sunday’s decisive second international.
The result was a player of the match display and a decisive league win.
It is also worth highlighting the huge impact of Australia’s own spin star Ashleigh Gardner, who took 23 wickets in the series.
Without her, England could be in possession of the urn now. But his success highlighted the shortcomings in Australia’s pace bowling stock…
Bell is heard for England as Filer makes an impact in the fast lane
Australia’s recent dominance coincided with the final stages of the careers of England fast bowling legends Anya Shrubsole and Katherine Sciver-Brunt.
With both now retired, Kate Cross and Lauren Bell have stepped up to lead the attack.
Bell, 22, has taken 14 wickets across this year’s Ashes series, which is more than Australia’s Megan Schutt, Darcie Brown and Ellyse Perry combined.
“England had a big task to fill the Shrubsole/Brunt void, especially given the consistency of both offerings over a number of years,” said former Australian batsman Alex Blackwell.
“But I’ve seen signs that Lauren Bell can do that as she grows in confidence. Her ability to bowl with control has had a huge impact on this team.”
England also turned to exciting young bowler Lauren Filer in the Test, where the seam attack saw a combined bowling speed increase of two miles per hour compared to the last two Tests England played.
“Lauren Filer provided some of the best entertainment of the Test when she charged in with the crowd behind her, and found Ellyse Perry twice,” Blackwell said.
“Darcie Brown is the Australian equivalent – their young tear – and she hasn’t been at her best, but she’s young and she’ll learn discipline.
“They’ve got a lot of depth as well, but it’s a shame to have Tayla Vlaeminck injured. Australia haven’t been up to speed.”
The Lanning effect
England may have closed the gap in some key areas, but the impact on Australia of losing captain Meg Lanning for this series for medical reasons is hard to quantify.
A titan with the bat – averaging 53.51 in one-day cricket – she has led Australia to unprecedented success as a skipper and should be talked about in the same breath as other great Australian captains such as Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.
The captain’s win percentage is an impressive 80%, compared to the 55% success rate of her representative in this series, Alyssa Healy.
Australia also lost their head coach, Matthew Mott, and influential batsman Rachael Haynes (retired) in the past year.
Shelley Nitschke has replaced Mott, who is now head coach of the England men’s whiteball team, while Haynes is being taken over by all-rounder Tahlia McGrath in the leadership group.
Blackwell, however, said the loss of Lanning, while significant, was not the main reason for the series draw.
She said: “Meg has a different style to Healy, who is very fun and light-hearted, but Lanning is more ‘my way’ and sets very high standards for herself and others. like her, but I do not think that the difference.
“We saw Australia under pressure for moments in the Test, but Healy’s fearless style helped Australia at times.
“When she came out to bat in the second innings, Australia had a flurry of wickets and she was on a pair with two broken fingers – but she made a half-century off 60-odd balls. And that’s what Lanning has instilled in the team.
“They know that they are never out of it until the last ball; they will never give up. She is the ice-cool captain, but I have not seen a big difference from that point of view between her and Healy.”
Although Australia dropped more chances in this series than in recent years under Lanning, they were still ahead of England in the fielding department.
So has England closed the gap?
Nat Sciver-Brunt thinks so – England’s beggar all summer, especially in the one-day series as she scores back-to-back centuries – although she admits there is still work to be done.
“I would say we are not that far apart,” said Sciver-Brunt, speaking ahead of the final ODI.
“As long as our intention is maintained and the way we play, there is not much of a gap.
“When there are times of pressure, they probably still lead us a little bit.
“Obviously we went over the line in some close games but we probably didn’t do it as convincingly as we would have liked.
“But I think we’re still on that learning curve a little bit – about how we, as individuals, deal with those pressure moments at specific times.”
Perhaps, however, the final word should go to Australia’s player of the league, Gardner.
Speaking at Tuesday’s post-match presentation, she said: “England have impressed us a lot better with a fearless brand of cricket, and it’s something we should look at.”
The apprentices may have taught the masters a lesson.