ANY GIVEN MONDAY
Cricket really has been the winner this winter. Those who worried that a new era of civility would neuter cricket's dramatic tension could not have been more wrong.
Here's just a few thoughts from beyond the boundary as we revel in one of the great test matches of our or anybody else's time.
In the space of 40 days two of the more extraordinary pieces of sporting theatre have been staged on green fields of England. Twice the central character has found himself facing odds more improbable than Jack Reacher, yet on both occasions Ben Stokes has elevated himself somewhere beyond the heroic.
Not even Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff, England's last two great all-action heroes, conjured up a summer quite like this one of Stokes, so it is worth remembering just how close he came to losing it all.
When video footage emerged of him laying waste to Ryan Ali outside a club in Bristol, Stokes' career was quite literally in the hands of a jury of his peers. He was acquitted last year of affray relating to an incident in 2017, using the rather novel defence that he was of fighting on behalf of a gay couple who were the subject of homophobic intimidation.
Stokes, it has to be said, has proven himself to be a much better cricketer than a drinker.
Just as it was in the World Cup final, technology again made a compelling argument for robo-umpires.
The element of human error is vital in maintaining sports ebbs and flows, but only when it's the athletes making the mistakes, not the adjudicators.
Umpiring has been extremely difficult in England this summer. Lousy weather has meant groundstaff around the country have not had the time they would have liked to prepare. The pitches have all tended to have variable bounce which is why we've had an extraordinary amount of umpiring errors for balls wrongly ruled to be hitting the stumps that have instead shown to be going well over.
As a result, some of the best in the game have clearly lost confidence. You saw that at times during the World Cup and you saw that most vividly in the first Ashes test when between them Aleem Dar and Joel Wilson combined for 10 upheld reviews and this didn't include wrong decisions that were not reviewed.
Towards the end of this pivotal third test you sensed the luckless Wilson and his New Zealand compatriot Chris Gaffaney had lost a bit of nerve. Gaffaney somehow missed a big nick from Joe Root into his pad, and saw a nick when there was none off Jonny Bairstow (both were successfully reviewed).
Why do we put umpires into these positions? The technology is only going to get better, not worse and when 5G is rolled out, we're going to be able to get close to real-time ball-tracking, ultra edge and other gizmos.
The flawed rules around the amount of reviews available and what constitutes out and not out around "umpire's call" lbws, continue to make a mockery of the men in the middle and add an arbitrary element to the sport that is ludicrous in a day and age when every beer-guzzling viewer has access to the right decision.
There will always be a place for umpires to administer pace of play, to keep decorum, to rule on law and obvious decisions, but with everything we have at hand, it's crazy that easily rectified umpiring mistakes still have the ability to decide matches, series and tournaments.
In direct contradiction to the point above, it was hard to feel sorry for Australia and their magnanimous skipper Tim Paine when Stokes survived a plumb lbw shout in what turned out to be the penultimate over.
The review wasted on Pat Cummins fanciful appeal against Jack Leach deserves its own place in cricket's hall of shame.
The Ashes has taken the coverage of cricket to the next level. Whether it's the feature-length Ashes specials, the pre-play set-ups or the game coverage itself, the quality has been gobsmackingly good.
Thanks to the Packer revolution, Australia (more specifically Channel Nine) was always seen as the home of cricket innovation until the IPL came in and added elements of Bollywood to its production. However, as Australia's coverage devolved into mindless sycophancy and the IPL went too far down the line of hucksterism, England have stepped up and become the unquestioned leaders of cricket coverage.
The camera work is great and the graphics always tell a story, but it is the razor-sharp, unaffected analysis that has pushed them miles in front of the field.
The jungle drums suggest Sky is looking to give its cricket coverage a big shake-up this summer. They have already announced the signing of Brendon McCullum while existing members of the team could become, like players, red- or white-ball specialists. Under such a scenario you'd expect somebody like Mark Richardson to concentrate on tests, while Scott Styris might be used for limited-overs cricket only.
What the Sky Sports cricket team in the UK has shown, though, is the cult of personality in cricket commentary and analysis comes a distant second to content.
It's a model Sky TV here would do well to follow.
Again, the Ashes drama has made the cricket in Sri Lanka seem meandering, but this time the comparison is a little unfair. In Galle last week the Black Caps were a genuinely poor watch, but they've played exceptionally in Colombo and deserve better than to be facing a likely, rain-soaked draw.
Tom Latham has once again dined out on Asian attacks and Trent Boult and Tim Southee have affirmed their status as New Zealand's greatest new-ball pairing. Colin de Grandhomme's unique charms highlighted the mistake New Zealand made last week in playing three specialist spinners.
It's not a series that will live long in the memory banks, however.
As well as New Zealand played in Colombo, it was not without the odd head-scratching moment. Quite what BJ Watling was thinking towards the end of day four is beyond sensible analysis. When New Zealand was desperate for quick runs that would give them a chance of a big lead, he was defending stoutly and nudging the odd single.
The thinking was probably all around getting de Grandhomme on strike but that was a moment you needed hitting from both ends.
Just 122 days until the Boxing Day Test. Anything else happening between now and then?
THE MONDAY LONG READ ...
Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts preternaturally gifted quarterback, shocked the world of American sports yesterday when he pulled the pin on an extraordinarily lucrative career at just 29. But what does it all mean? Thankfully Drew Magary from Deadspin can TELL us (you'll soon understand the use of CAPS LOCK).
Might as well stay on the American football theme as kickoff is just a fortnight away. This Sports Illustrated kind-of profile on a coach who became a punchline is a fascinating study in obsession. There are a million reasons Hue Jackson should hang his clipboard up for good, but he just can't.