The debrief in Adelaide was meant to represent a fresh start for England but was instead followed by pants being pulled down in Melbourne. Their batting on St Stephen’s Day was so utterly dysfunctional that even the script writers for EastEnders might have deemed the storyline a bit too depressing for their annual dose of festive humbug.
Joe Root had claimed before this must-win third Ashes Test against Australia that a response was incoming from the tourists. Chris Silverwood, the usually mild-mannered head coach, had locked the dressing-room door in response to going 2-0 down a week ago, stuck their dismissals up on the TV screen and dispensed what is known colloquially in these parts as a bake.
Instead, shortly after tea on the opening day at the MCG – not even halfway through the series as a whole – the Barmy Army trumpeter could already be heard pootling the theme from The Great Escape. A rejigged England side featuring four changes were eight down during what became an eventual 185 all out in 65.1 overs. And that was a total swelled by Ollie Robinson, the No 9, throwing the bat to the tune of 22 runs.
This was the 12th time in 2021 that England have been rolled for under 200 – and in a year when their captain is in the form of his life. Root top-scored with 50 – he now has one final innings in which to make 109 runs and break Mohammad Yusuf's Test record of 1,788 in a calendar year – but sat among a guilty trio of soft dismissals that featured two supposed lieutenants in Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler.
Australia, by contrast, enjoyed their latest day of domination without truly breaking sweat. Pat Cummins had returned from his Covid-related absence in Adelaide and set the tone with three wickets in the morning, with a support cast that included a debutant in Scott Boland simply enjoying the slipstream. When the hosts reached stumps on 61 for one, David Warner the opener removed by Jimmy Anderson late on, Ashes retention had nudged closer. Their only concern was Marcus Harris suffering a late finger injury.
By this stage a largely sated crowd of 57,100 had thinned out considerably. Hesitancy during a pandemic was one contributing factor to a slightly disappointing turnout by MCG standards; so, too, the lack of travelling England supporters, who can number up to 20,000 at this time of year. There was also a nagging suspicion, however, that the absence of a contest so far in the series contributed to the number of Melburnians who sought alternative arrangements.
A morning session that left England 61 for three after the demise of Dawid Malan on the stroke of lunch could at least be explained in part by the sheer excellence of Cummins. Indeed the world’s No 1 Test seamer was barely able to suppress his smile when, under grey skies and after a 30-minute delay for rain, he won the toss and opted to make first use of a green-tinged pitch.
Root wore a haunted look when confirming he would have done the same and then for the 14th time in 27 innings this year he found himself walking out to the middle inside the first 10 overs. Haseeb Hameed had registered England’s 50th duck in 2021, Cummins feathering the edge of a defensive shot played deep within the crease, while Zak Crawley’s return ended on 12 when he was squared up and shouldered to gully.
Crawley, in for Rory Burns, had been skittish, with one booming drive at fresh air underlining the challenge of stepping into a series devoid of any meaningful cricket. But though Malan and Root managed to settle matters down with a stand of 48 – England's series with the bat in microcosm – the former's departure, edging the relentless Cummins to second slip, meant a new batsman starting out in the afternoon.
Root was at least looking his celestial best, needing 76 balls to bring up his latest half-century. But for the ninth time in Australia this staging post en route to three figures was followed by a mental error and the latest punch of the bat in anger. Root's previously profitable guide behind square to Boland was attempted against the left-arm angle of Starc, only to present Alex Carey with the simplest of takes behind the stumps.
Worse was to come. Stokes had battled his way to 25, even launching Nathan Lyon for a straight six in a bid to affect the off-spinner's ability to hold an end. Australia have an impressive fifth bowler these days, however, with Cameron Green quick, hostile, miserly and eventually successful when his fellow all-rounder miscued an uppercut to backward point. The fact an earlier attempt had failed to make contact added to the frustration.
Then came the nadir, Jos Buttler unable to resist a yahoo off Lyon in the final over of the session and seeing this gobbled up by Boland in the deep. After showing such resolve during a 207-ball rearguard in Adelaide, and having by all accounts been such a prominent voice during the postmortem that followed, it was a quite inexplicable option for the 31-year-old to take 11 balls into his innings and with safety in sight.
It left the recalled Jonny Bairstow with an elongated tail to marshal and just 128 for six on the board. But with Mark Wood, playing at No 8 for just the second time in Tests, soon trapped lbw by Boland – the Victorian mobbed by his teammates when the review upheld his maiden Test cricket – Bairstow felt compelled to attack, eventually gloving a snorter from Starc to gully on 35 and ending up on his backside for good measure.
Once Lyon had eventually shut down some resistance from the tail, it was over to England’s bowlers to strive for some late blows. Wood bowled like the wind here, roughing up Warner before the opener edged Anderson to gully, while Stokes left Harris in pain when a short ball crashed into his bottom hand. Australia, however, had landed enough of their own by this stage to ensure St Stephen’s Day was a one-sided fight. - Guardian