Australia close to securing Ashes as bowlers strike in Melbourne

Covid scare in the morning far from ideal for tourists

Day 2: England 185 (J Root 50, J Bairstow 35; P Cummins 3-36, N Lyon 3-36, M Starc 2-54) & 31-4 (S Boland 2-1, M Starc 2-11) trail Australia 267 (M Harris 76, D Warner 38; J Anderson 4-33, O Robinson 2-64, M Wood 2-71) by 51 runs.

The second day in Melbourne began with serious concerns over the completion of the third Ashes Test and ended with Australia doing their utmost to wrap things up swiftly. In a febrile final hour that saw the MCG turned up to 11 by way of volume, their relentless fast bowlers induced the latest grim England batting collapse.

Joe Root’s tourists had done so much right up to this point, dutifully clearing their minds from the swirling uncertainty of a Covid outbreak in the camp overnight and, through Jimmy Anderson’s masterful figures of four for 33, bowling out Australia for 267 in 87.5 overs. A limp demise to 185 all out the previous day was never going to be easy to overcome but an 82-run first-innings deficit hinted at a possible contest boiling up.

By stumps England's fortunes were once again nosediving with a degree of familiarity at 31 for four; compelling viewing but ultimately a reversion to the one-sided nature of this series. First came Mitchell Starc, thundering in from the Great Southern Stand End and knocking over Zak Crawley and Dawid Malan in the space of two balls, then Scott Boland, the 32-year-old Victorian on debut, vapourising Haseeb Hameed and nightwatchman Jack Leach in the space of just three to send his home crowd berserk.

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This was a fearsome passage of play, the tone of which was set early on when a brutish bouncer from Pat Cummins crashed into Hameed's arm guard and flew over the slips. Starc, slightly subdued on day one, appeared to feed off his captain's early energy, teasing a feint edge behind from Crawley on five and then trapping Malan lbw on the back foot. It looked high to the naked eye, but the left-hander's review proved in vain when the Hawkeye projection suggested it would indeed have trimmed the bails.

Though beaten, Root survived the hat-trick ball yet could only look on helplessly from the other end when Cummins swapped out Starc for Boland and the newcomer found the edge of Hameed’s bat from back of a length. Out came Leach in the hope of reaching stumps but soon he was back in the hutch, his attempt to leave his second ball on length followed by the sinking feeling of hearing his off stump rattled. The 52nd duck during England’s apparent assault on the record of 54 in a calendar year.

Root, who reached the close 12 not out with Ben Stokes for company, may well be reaching the point where he is done with the burdens of captaincy. And not least after a day when, despite news that two coaches and two family members in the touring party had tested positive for Covid-19, his side displayed renewed fight on this green MCG pitch, only for this to then be undone by a top order still made of balsa wood.

Indeed it wasn’t until the home side’s tail wagged against the second new ball, the lead going from manageable to more vexing through a couple of handy contributions by Cummins (21) and Starc (24 not out), that England got slightly ragged in the field. In the main Root was proactive with his changes and even Leach, though slightly neutered by the left handers and a negative leg-side plan, was finally able to get into his work on tour after the initial pummelling received at the Gabba.

So much of this came through the enduring qualities of Anderson. They say Australia is no country for old men but the 39-year-old was sublime back at the ground where, in 2002, a shy unknown lad from Burnley first walked out into the international area, offering his captain the ideal blend of economy and penetration whenever called upon. Most significant of all was the removal of Steve Smith for just 16 in a spell of six overs, one for one, when a ball nipped in and crashed into the stumps via inside edge.

Smith was the third strike of a morning session that hinted at an English revival. After a sloppy start Ollie Robinson snuffed out the nightwatchman, Nathan Lyon, while Mark Wood nicked off the newly-crowned world No1 Test batsman, Marnus Labsuchagne, for the same number as his ranking to begin another day of blistering speeds and nasty body blows. Sitting 103 for four at lunch, still 82 in arrears, Australia suddenly needed the less celebrated members of their batting line-up to deliver.

By this stage Marcus Harris was in slightly unfamiliar territory, with the opener having earlier batted with Smith for the first time in Test cricket and a newly formed alliance with Travis Head representing his first ever fifth-wicket partnership. It was more craggy than fluent but by top-scoring with 76, a first half-century in 17 innings before Anderson eventually teased a loose drive to slip, the opener secured his spot in the short term.

Harris aside, England chiselled out wickets with enough regularity to appear in the Test match. Robinson, though still not as conditioned as he might be for the rigours of Test cricket, got Head driving to slip on 27 and two bonus wickets came in the run-up to the second new ball after tea when Leach trapped Cameron Green lbw on the backfoot for 17 and Stokes profited from Alex Carey's swish behind on 19.

Australia were 236 for eight by the time the latest cherry-ripe Kookaburra emerged, with Starc and Cummins then profiting from admittedly tough drops by Anderson and Robinson during a slightly maddening passage of play for the tourists. When the innings was finally shut down by Anderson and Wood, it wasn’t just the openers running off to strap on their pads, but Root and Malan also. Such is their lot in life these days. – Guardian