Series of highs also leaves room for improvement
Tim Paine laments missed chances that denied Australia a series win as he and Steve Smith pinpoint Edgbaston as the pivotal moment of the Ashes
Andrew Ramsey at The Oval
16 September 2019, 08:57 AM AEST
Even with the Ashes urn to notionally remain with his team for the next two-and-a-half years, and the satisfaction of achieving what had proved beyond his predecessors Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke, Tim Paine felt strangely unfulfilled.
The fact that Australia could not secure the Test match win that would have handed them the first Ashes series win in the UK since 2001, and that their 135-run defeat at The Oval meant the battle with England ended as a stalemate, sat uneasily alongside the notion of 'mission accomplished'.
But as he recounted the journey he had been chosen to oversee, and the position from which Australia's men's team had come as recently as 11 months ago in the UAE, a smile crept across the 34-year-old's impossibly boyish face.
"Taking the urn home was what we came here to do," Paine said after his team had been showered with green and gold streamers and celebrated with fans who had lingered on after the loss for the Sunday evening trophy presentation.
"We're thrilled by that.
"This game puts a bit of a dampener on it, but overall if you said we would be taking them (the Ashes) home, we would have jumped at that."
For all the twists and turns, the highs and lows that awaited at seemingly every juncture of five compelling Test matches, it was the series opener that resonated most clearly for Paine.
It was also the match that Steve Smith, the Compton-Miller Medallist as Player of the Series and undisputed difference between the historic rivals, rated as the highlight of his campaign.
It was the first Test at Edgbaston, the venue billed as a fortress for England in much the same way that Brisbane's Gabba was proved an Australian stronghold for 30 years, where the tourists grabbed a lead that was never overtaken.
And it provided confidence for the re-cast, re-branded outfit under Paine's leadership – which had enjoyed just four wins from their preceding 10 Tests - that they could match it with England on their home turf, where they had toppled Australia in each of the past four Ashes battles in Britain.
"There was so much talk of it (Edgbaston) being a fortress, and how difficult it was going to be for us to start the series," Paine said of his team's 251-run win in the first Test less than seven weeks ago.
"So for us to win that Test quite convincingly gave us the belief that we could do it, and gave us a taste of how we wanted to play over here would work.
"To get that confirmation so early in the series made it easier for the guys to stick with what we wanted to do."
That plan was built around containment from the bowlers on grounds where scoring can be hectic, and where past Australia attacks have suffered through their willingness to push too hard in search of wickets.
It was carried out to near perfection by pacemen Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle with crucial cameos from Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Marsh, as well as the vital spin of Nathan Lyon, who was pivotal on the final day at Edgbaston.
The parsimony of Australia's bowlers, as much as their capacity to keep England's potent batting line-up in check through regular wickets, led rival skipper Joe Root to label them the most challenging attack he's encountered in English conditions.
"Put the conditions together with number-one seeded (Cummins) and number-three seeded (Hazlewood) bowlers in the world, and that alone is going to be quite hard work," Root conceded.
"They've been performing as a bowling group for a while.
"They were very well prepared, and made it very difficult."
As both Paine and Root acknowledged, success of both teams' bowling outfits and the ineffectiveness of the respective top-order batters more often than not meant Smith's contribution shone as definitive.
"He's been a pain, really," Root said with a smile of the world's number-one ranked batter, who rewrote his own scoring records in his return to Test cricket after more than a year outside the game.
Smith, who celebrated his first wedding anniversary with wife, Dani, on what proved the final day of the series, also nominated his first innings at Edgbaston as the high-point of a campaign that he bestrode as a batting colossus.
That was partly because it proved to him, and to the world, that he had lost little of his genius and competitive edge despite his 12-month suspension.
And more importantly in Smith's eyes, it set up the series for his team after they found themselves in familiarly dire circumstances at 8-122 on that decisive first day, having chosen to bat first.
"The first innings was my favourite innings of the whole series," Smith said on Sunday evening, after being dismissed for his lowest score (23) of a remarkably triumphant tour.
"The first Test is always important in an Ashes series, and to pull the team out of trouble at the time, it gave me the confidence to know I could slot straight back in and perform.
"It was a long 18 months (between Tests), and I have a lot of people to thank.
"I have given it my all while I've been here for the last four-and-a-half months, but I didn't have much more to give today.
"I was pretty cooked mentally and physically and I'm looking forward to a couple of weeks off and heading back for the Australian summer."
For the memorable highs that delivered Australia that first-up win at a venue where they had not tasted success since 2001, and then the final-day win at Old Trafford that ensured the urn was retained, there was also inevitable low spots.
Without question, the worrying blow and subsequent concussion suffered by Smith during the second Test at Lord's was integral to the final series scoreline in much the same way the absence of England's most successful Test bowler James Anderson hampered the home side’s hopes.
Smith was forced to sit out the third Test at Headingley, where England came from the clouds to level the series in what Paine identified as perhaps the major disappointment of the first drawn Ashes series since 1972 in the UK.
It was that result, where Australia placed one hand on the Ashes only to have Ben Stokes rip it loose, that stung more than Sunday's defeat at The Oval.
Even if Paine acknowledged that his much-debated decision to bowl first in the final Test - at a venue historically good for batting and with an already foot-weary bowling attack at his disposal - was effectively a captain's call made as he walked to the centre of the The Oval for the coin toss.
And for all the key moments that his team stood tall and grabbed the initiative, there were times – such as the final session at Headingley, and the first one at The Oval last Thursday – where their inexperience and vulnerabilities were exposed.
He therefore pointed to the template provided by Smith as the prudent path ahead as the group returns to Australia and eyes a home summer, already just days from starting.
"Every team needs to keep improving," Paine said.
"Steve (Smith) is the best player in the world and he is still improving.
"The moment we stop thinking we need to improve, there is something wrong.
"Steve had a great series and won a couple of Tests by himself, but we've got a couple of parts that we need to improve.
"As a whole series, we had a heap of good moments in a country where Australia hasn't had a lot of success for a long time.
"We can be proud of that.
"I still have a bit to give, but we're always trying to develop more leaders in our group and there is unfinished business - it's about getting better.
"If we can click them into gear when he (Smith) is at the height of his powers, and with the pace attack we have got, in the next few years we are going to be a hard team to beat."
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia won by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: England won by one wicket at Headingley
Fourth Test: Australia won by 185 runs at Old Trafford
Fifth Test: England won by 135 runs