Were the 2017-18 Ashes reimagined as a major Hollywood film, its reviews might well term it "an impressive, popular technical achievement that lacks a compelling storyline - more Armageddon than Casablanca". By most measures, this has been among the most successful Ashes series of all. For attendance, it is second to only one other in history. Yet it carries the unmistakable sense of something missing.
When the SCG scoreboards flashed an official attendance of 17,174 for the 25th and last day of the series, it took the total to 867,002, the most in Australia since 957,550 witnessed the contest of 1936-37. Given similarly healthy television figures in Australia, this Ashes can undoubtedly be termed a "box office smash". In recognising how it has been so well-attended, the story of the encounter 81 years ago is worth considering.
For decades, that series has stood as the best-attended Ashes of all time, the apogee of Test cricket for the masses. The booming crowds were attributed to factors including Sir Donald Bradman's comeback from illness, the end of the Great Depression, expanded capacity for the Gabba and the MCG, and the fact it was a series that could *only* be watched at the ground, predating television in Australia by 20 years.
Significant, too, was a mightily compelling contest, in which the hosts came back from an 0-2 deficit to win 3-2, the only time such a feat has been achieved in Test match history. Each match was scheduled to be played to a finish, and two of them, in Adelaide and Melbourne, stretched into a sixth day. Given the heavily fractious nature of the previous Ashes down under, Bodyline and all that, the visiting captain Gubby Allen was eager to restore friendly relationships. Allowing Bradman's Australia to come back from such a deficit, while eschewing the tactics of Douglas Jardine, went a long way towards doing so.
By contrast, Australia's 4-0 drubbing of England this summer will not go down as one of the most memorable in Ashes history, except in terms of the size of the crowds and the escalating greatness of the home side's captain, Steven Smith. Having lost Ben Stokes and Mark Wood before the series, England arrived with plans to contain Australia and play within their limitations, but were not good enough to fully enact them. Australia have found enough supporting batsmen to help Smith in his quest for evermore runs and hours at the crease, while their bowling attack has shown a balance of threat and economy that England cannot match.
"At times we had to bat for a little bit longer than we would have liked for the runs that we got," Smith said. "So it was a series of patience and perhaps our batters just had some better patience throughout the series. Our bowlers had clear plans to the bottom four which worked more often than not, and the areas we bowled to the batters as well, we had pretty clear plans and a lot of them worked. England had their foot in the door in most Test matches but we won the key moments in the games which were really crucial and didn't allow England back into the game."
Australian determination not to fall prey to English containment has led to a particularly sedate scoring rate - Smith and Shaun Marsh, the two leading run-makers, have both progressed at comfortably less than 50 runs per 100 balls. Likewise the Australian bowlers have prospered through patience, none more so than Nathan Lyon, hammering away at clearly defined plans for long periods. Lyon's ability as both an attacking and defensive bowler has had flow-on effects for the rest of the attack, as all four of its regular members topped 20 wickets.
"The cricket itself ... apart from Adelaide it's been really tough cricket, really attritional," England's vice-captain James Anderson said. "The batsmen who've been successful have been the ones that have been willing to bat for really long periods of time. A team's never really flown away, the run rate's never gone above three an over, and there's never really been a massive collapse of wickets. It's been pretty tough, attritional cricket."
"So conditioned are members of the public to flock to the Ashes, it matters no more now that the series features a compelling spectacle than it does for Melbourne's spring racing carnival to have a thrilling Melbourne Cup run, or for Wimbledon to need an epic final"
But the lack of compelling cricket has been, to a large extent, incidental to the size of the Ashes as an event and a brand. If anything, the slower pace of matches stretching into a fifth day at all venues has aided administrators, broadcasters and sponsors in providing more Ashes "content" than in any series since 1994-95, the last encounter to run its full duration. That summer, the first in which the then Australian Cricket Board took over the marketing of the game from Kerry Packer's PBL and turned far greater attention to Test cricket, can be considered the start of an upward trend in Ashes interest in Australia that has led to a point where the event does not sink or swim based only on the cricket alone.
So conditioned are members of the public to flock to the Ashes, it matters no more now that the series features a compelling spectacle than it does for Melbourne's spring racing carnival to have a thrilling Melbourne Cup run, or for Wimbledon to need an epic final. Capstones such as these are nice to have, but in the increasingly commercial realm of Cricket Australia, the quality of the contest is secondary to the Australian team performing well enough to win, and the game's business arms mobilising to get as many people as possible to watch.
The question for CA to weigh up now is whether it matters what they watch as much as how long they watch it for. Adelaide's drop-in pitch, pink ball and day/night conditions produced the most even contest between bat and ball, the most undulating passages of play and also the earliest finish in terms of overs bowled. There was no more tense period in this series than the fourth evening and fifth afternoon, with all the wondering in between about whether England might challenge the target set by Australia - Smith admitted to needing a sleeping pill to be able to get through that night with a modicum of rest.
Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney produced matches that stretched further, but offered up surfaces more drab than the players would have preferred. The MCG was of course the most egregious example, earning a "poor" rating from the ICC, but neither the Gabba nor the SCG provided enough in the way of assistance for bowlers until each match had progressed well past its midpoint. The CA chairman David Peever and his head of strategy, Kevin Roberts, will present to the MCC world cricket committee on four-day Tests this week, but none of these three surfaces would have afforded much opportunity for a result in the event of a day being shaved off each.
Perth, meanwhile, bid farewell to the WACA Ground with an excellent pitch that provided pace and bounce before the cracks opened up later in the game to generate plenty of natural variation - just ask Mitchell Starc and James Vince. The new Perth Stadium across the Swan River sums up the journey of Australian Ashes cricket from beloved event to mass market entertainment in that its new drop-in pitch remains unproven in terms of being able to provide that sort of fire and brimstone environment for players, but a capacity in the region of 50,000 should mean that the next Ashes series in 2021-22 stands a strong chance of surpassing 1936-37 in the record books.
And what better way to sum up the shift of the Ashes into mainstream event status, with all its kitschy popular appeal, than to describe the dais on which Smith accepted the urn? Wheeled out onto the SCG in the moments after James Anderson was winkled out, it featured an Australian hand holding up four fingers while England's remained clenched in a fist, symbolising zero. It could have quite easily been drawn from the mind of Michael Bay.
Scorelines other than 4-0 were of course possible leading into this match, meaning numerous versions of these props needed to be constructed. Where the alternative hand scores will end up, no-one can say, but it did recall the immortal line of Casablanca's director Michael Curtiz: "Bring on the empty horses!"