England captain Joe Root is already training his sights on regaining the Ashes in 2022, buoyed by an series-levelling victory at The Oval he believes can act as the blueprint.
England knew Australia would be lifting the urn after they took an unassailable lead 2-1 at Old Trafford last week but the response at the end of a long and historic summer of international cricket was a stylish one.
Four wickets apiece from Stuart Broad and Jack Leach, plus two for the captain’s part-time off-spin, rolled the tourists over for 263 and sealed a 135-run win that sealed a well-earned 2-2 draw.
That represents an improvement on Root’s last experience of the series, a humbling 4-0 loss Down Under, and he intends to do everything in his power to ensure England go one better again when hostilities resume in two-and-a-half years.
“I thought the performance this week was a lot closer to the template of where we want to be in Test cricket. Hopefully that will be a massive stepping stone and starting point for us to kick on as a team,” he said.
“We’ve got an opportunity now to really push and do everything we can to prepare extremely well for that next tour of Australia. That’s going to be a huge focus for me and I’d like to hope for English cricket.
“That’s got to be our main focus – going down there and winning. Every Test match between now and then is an opportunity to push your case. I’m desperate to take this team forward and I will do everything I can to prepare us for that series.”
Root had called for a big response after events in Manchester and was happy to see his team delivering. It meant an international campaign that saw England win the World Cup for the first time and elbow their way back into the national consciousness in a way not seen since 2005, ended on a positive note.
Events of the past few months have given the sport a fresh platform and nobody is prouder of that than the man at the top.
“I was desperate to win this series but 2-2 looks a hell of a lot better than 3-1, that’s for sure,” he said.
“That World Cup was incredible...fantastic viewing. The cricket was gripping and to back it up with such an evenly matched Ashes series... what a summer of cricket it’s been. For English cricket, that’s a success.”
Nobody has done more to entertain and excite in that time than Ben Stokes, who has at times represented an all-action super-hero. It was he who carried England over the line when they looked like falling in the World Cup final and his innings in Leeds that left typically sober onlookers declaring the best of all time.
Speaking at the presentation ceremony he said he would trade his fairy-tale knock in for a chance to lift the urn this week.
“It was disappointing to know we couldn’t get the Ashes back but we came here with a lot of pride and looking to draw the series,” said Stokes.
“I’ll look back on winning at Headingley in a few years’ time with fond memories probably, but I’d swap it for winning the Ashes.”
England might have done just that had Steve Smith not produced a classic series of his own, churning out an incredible 774 runs in seven visits.
Stuart Broad got him for just 23 on the final day of the series, leaving Root to offer a wry reflection on the man of the series.
“He’s been a pain, really,” said the skipper.
“He’s done something very special and been the difference. It was nice to see a plan come together finally, even though it was what we started with in the first Test at Edgbaston.”
After asking Australia to chase a towering total of 399, England finally cracked Steve Smith’s code – dismissing him for under 50 for the first time in 11 innings – and outlasted a defiant Matthew Wade, who made 117.
The result sent England’s outgoing coach Trevor Bayliss out on a high after more than four years at the helm and denied Tim Paine the bragging rights of becoming the first Australia skipper since 2001 to oversee an outright win on these shores.
Smith was expected to be the main obstacle to a home success on day four and as long as he was active, anything was possible. For once he betrayed his mortality, suckered into a well-laid trap to finish with a gargantuan series tally of 774 runs scored, 1,196 balls faced and an average of 110.57.
It fell to the team’s sledger-in-chief, Wade, to carry the fight and he fought through a fiery and ill-tempered tussle with Jofra Archer to make a fine hundred. He was eighth man out deep in the evening session when England skipper Root had him stumped, his second wicket in a useful cameo with the ball.
Root was also involved at the death, holding both catches as Leach picked off Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood, and so ended a famous summer for cricket in this country taking in a historic World Cup win at Lord’s and a compelling Ashes contest.
Smith saluted Australia’s retention of the urn at the end of a “spectacular” contest after seeing Wade sign off with a century.
Smith said: “It’s been an amazing couple of months in England. The cricket’s been spectacular. The series has ebbed and flowed.
“I’ve loved every minute and am proud to have been able to perform for Australia and bring the urn home. The middle of the wicket still played pretty well, and Wade applied himself, batted beautifully today. But England played terrific cricket.”
Australia captain Paine added: “Regrets? I’ve got a couple - to start with, the toss. We didn’t take our chances on day one, we didn’t back up our bowlers.
“England got ahead of the game. I can’t read a pitch so I’m always 50-50.
“No doubt today puts a dampener on it, but from where this group’s come from, to retain the Ashes is still a big deal.”