The Ashes is secured, but there is a huge amount at stake for Australia at The Oval. Return home with a 3-1 series win, to go alongside the World Test Championship title, and legacies will be secured. Draw the series, from being 2-0 up, and it will be mission incomplete.
“I remember turning up here in 2019 for the fifth Test and I was wrecked,” he said. “It’s probably the only time in my career where I thought I genuinely might not be able to play. But I still did a decent job then. And I feel in a much better position now.”
So, for the second time in four years, Australia reach The Oval 2-1 up but via different routes and aiming to achieve what they have been unable to do since 2001. This time, they were perhaps two good sessions of cricket away from securing this series outright in Leeds. England were 142 for 7 at lunch on the second day, still 121 behind, and for all their love for a run chase there is a good chance that, had they conceded a hefty lead, the game would have gone.
Instead, largely through Ben Stokes and Mark Wood, England cracked 95 off ten overs to draw almost level and then, later in the day with Australia’s lead approaching 100, Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne handed their wickets to Moeen Ali. There were a few twists to come but that’s where the mood of this series shifted.
“There are some people who are close to the end of their career. That means we’ll have to find some new guys, who I think it won’t be very hard to find, but no doubt the team’s going to change over time. Maybe it’s this moment, I don’t know”
Pat Cummins on the inevitable changing of guard, which doesn’t look too far away
Australia admitted how poor they were, but have also tried to play it down somewhat by saying they always expected it would come given how England play. When it did come, they did not have any answers. Labuschagne and Mitchell Marsh ensured a touch of equilibrium was resorted on the fourth day, but only the rain saved them.
It all means they come back to London, where this tour started at the beginning of last month with the World Test Championship final, needing a victory (or at least be in a strong position for one should weather intervene again) to honestly be able to leave knowing they were the better team.
“It’s a big one,” Cummins said. “If we win this one and you look back, it’s been an incredible tour over here really. We’ve played five games, we’ve won three and only lost one. It’s already a fantastic tour. But to go home winning the urn would be phenomenal. It’s a final thing to tick off the list of titles to win for a few of the guys, who you never [know] if you’ll get another chance at it. We’ve said the whole time, our aim is to come here and win the Ashes and that’s the opportunity ahead of us.”
As Cummins alluded to, it will be the last Ashes Test in England for a lot of this side. In fact, it probably marks the start of a transition for both teams: the youngest member of the England attack at Old Trafford was Wood at 33.
For Australia, of those who have featured in the series, you can only say confidently, as much as is possible with the uncertainties of professional sport, that Labuschagne, Travis Head, Cameron Green and Todd Murphy will have the chance of returning in four years’ time. Marsh and Alex Carey (35 by then) are perhaps borderline names, as is Cummins himself who will be 34. The team will start disbanding as soon as the next home summer with Warner the first to depart, at the SCG against Pakistan in early January if he makes it that far.
“We know we are an experienced team,” Cummins said. “But that means there are some people who are close to the end of their career. That means we’ll have to find some new guys, who I think it won’t be very hard to find, but no doubt the team’s going to change over time. Maybe it’s this moment, I don’t know.”
While some are questioning how long Cummins will be able to marry the role of lead fast bowler and captain, he sees the upcoming changing of the guard as something exciting.
“We’re very individualised in how we let everyone be themselves and do it their way,” he said. “Some of that’s down to the fact that we’ve got guys that have played 100 Test matches [and] 15 years of first-class cricket. If there’s new guys [coming] in maybe you need to shift that a little bit more. It’s exciting – that’s what I like about the job.”
But before the future, comes the immediate challenge. Being crowned Test world champions was deserving reward for two years of excellent Test cricket, but coupling that with an Ashes series win in England – something that has passed by a number of very fine Australian players – is needed to ensure that this group of players has its place in history.
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo