Rain puts a dent in fourth Ashes Test with one day to go

Australia end rain-affected day on 103-2, 61 runs behind after Alastair Cook’s record innings

Covers can be seen over the pitch during a rain delay on the fourth day of the fourth Ashes cricket test match. Photo: David Gray/Reuters

Covers can be seen over the pitch during a rain delay on the fourth day of the fourth Ashes cricket test match. Photo: David Gray/Reuters

 

A grim, grey day in Melbourne and a glum one for the game. It was almost a relief when the clouds that had been hovering over the MCG released their rain upon two sets of cricketers, striving hard but making very little headway.

The inhabitants of Melbourne may be the keenest spectators of sport in the world. They stroll from the city centre in huge numbers to watch the Australian Open tennis in January; likewise they turn up all winter next door to the MCG or to the Etihad Stadium at the other end of the city for their beloved AFL; the Big Bash T20 matches here turn visiting officials of the England and Wales Cricket Board green with envy, spawning crazy schemes to transport Melbourne to Manchester and beyond. And apparently at the last count about 217,000 people have passed through the turnstiles to watch this Test match.

Let’s hope they all come again. But there is no guarantee of that. This drop-in pitch encourages us to drop off. The system is employed because of the sway of the Australian rules football over here. The stadium earns most of its corn from the AFL and those footballers have to run over the square. So drop-in pitches are the norm though this is not the case in Sydney where the SCG Trust has insisted that the original turf is still used for cricket, football or no football.

In the 21st century when just about anything is possible by pressing a button, it appears to be surprisingly difficult to create a cricket pitch that deteriorates appropriately to allow an enthralling and changing balance between bat and ball over the space of five days. Many Australians have been railing against this surface this week, though their players and coaches have remained polite and discreet: it does not suit their bowling attack since the bounce is so low and slow. It does not suit their superior spinner since the ball declines to turn.

As the game has progressed the pursuit of reverse swing becomes the only hope for some lateral movement, which is why the umpires appeared to chide the England side when the ball was thrown into bare surfaces on Friday. The game becomes a battle of attrition, which is rarely the preferred Australian way.

The criticisms are more guarded from the English side of the coin. The nature of the pitch has enhanced their chance of run-scoring as has the absence of Mitchell Starc and they may be more skilful at achieving some reverse swing. Moreover there is an understandable reluctance to diminish the achievement of Alastair Cook when posting the highest score by a visiting batsman in Test cricket at the MCG. After one ball on Friday, which saw Jimmy Anderson caught at short-leg, Cook also registered the highest ever score by an opener carrying his bat, surpassing Glenn Turner’s 223 against the West Indies in Jamaica in 1972. Hopefully Cook had not spent all morning in the nets.

Whatever the nature of the pitch Cook produced a remarkable innings but Anderson’s observations after the first day’s play still hold good despite Australia’s first innings collapse on Wednesday. “People want to see entertaining cricket especially in an iconic Boxing Day Test at the MCG”, he said. “It wasn’t exciting to watch and it wasn’t exciting to play in, to be honest, when it’s attritional like that. But that’s the pitch that we’ve got and we’ve got to put up with it”.

For the first time on the tour there might be some Australians nodding in agreement at Anderson’s views. Amid the dash for cash it is so easy to forget that the pitch, more than anything else, dictates the nature of the entertainment available. For all its wondrous facilities beyond the boundary the MCG has failed to produce a good one.

Sometimes poor pitches can produce dramatic finishes. That happened in England’s Tests against Pakistan in 2015 in Abu Dhabi and Australia in Cardiff in 2009. This was less likely to be the case here after the afternoon rain, which left a minimum of 98 overs in the game and Australia 103-2 in their second innings.

So far England, through the performances of their senior players, have acquitted themselves better on this surface, but they hit a barn door in the shape of Australia’s two best batsmen, David Warner and Steve Smith. They batted the final 22.4 overs of the day, acquiring just 38 runs but looking distinctly impenetrable and, in Warner’s case, unusually patient. The pace bowlers were persistent and disciplined but the bats of Australia’s captain and vice-captain were broad as the deficit was reduced to 61.

There had been some success for the England bowlers against the more fallible members of Australia’s upper order. Cameron Bancroft stayed long enough to post a half-century partnership with Warner but was then bowled through the gate off the inside edge by Chris Woakes. Since Brisbane Bancroft has looked increasingly vulnerable. If he’s not careful his imminent season at Somerset will not be interrupted by calls from Cricket Australia to attend vital training camps.

Then Usman Khawaja was almost as frenetic as Moeen on Thursday. He opened his scoring with a straight six off England’s off-spinner, a more convincing stroke than Moeen’s, and he followed this with a sumptuous cover drive. But he was more tentative against the pacemen. He nibbled at Anderson, who was conjuring a little away movement against the left-hander and Jonny Bairstow accepted the catch.

There followed an hour and a half of attritional cricket. England bowled straight to conservative fields; Smith and Warner played straight and never missed a ball. It was a passage of play to be relished by the connoisseur perhaps – or the fanatic. Yet no one seemed that disappointed when the rain returned with greater conviction.

England first innings

Batsman: Runs; Balls; 4s; 6s.

A N Cook: 244; 409; 27; 0.

M D Stoneman (c & b Lyon): 15; 37; 1; 0.

J M Vince (lbw b Hazlewood): 17; 37; 3; 0.

J E Root (c Lyon b Cummins): 61; 133; 7; 0.

D J Malan (lbw b Hazlewood): 14; 43; 3; 0.

J M Bairstow (c Paine b Lyon): 22; 39; 3; 0.

M M Ali (c Marsh b Lyon): 20; 14; 2; 1.

C R Woakes (c Paine b Cummins): 26; 62; 3; 0.

T K Curran (c Paine b Hazlewood): 4; 15; 1; 0.

S C J Broad (c Khawaja b Cummins): 56; 63; 8; 1.

J M Anderson: 0; 15; 0; 0.

Extras: 4b; 5lb; 0w; 3nb; 12.

Total: 491 for 9 after 144.0 overs.

Bowler: O; M; R; W.

J R Hazlewood: 30; 5; 95; 3.

J M Bird: 30; 5; 108; 0.

N M Lyon: 42; 9; 109; 3.

P J Cummins: 29; 1; 117; 3.

M R Marsh: 12; 1; 42; 0.

S P D Smith: 1; 0; 11; 0.

Fall of wickets: Order; Name; Runs.

1; M D Stoneman; 35.

2; J M Vince; 80.

3; J E Root; 218.

4 ; D J Malan; 246.

5; J M Bairstow; 279.

6; M M Ali; 307.

7; C R Woakes; 366.

8; T K Curran; 373.

9; S C J Broad; 473.

Australia first innings

Batsman: Runs; Balls; 4s; 6s.

C T Bancroft (lbw b Woakes): 26; 95; 2; 0.

D A Warner (c Bairstow b Anderson): 103; 151; 13; 1.

U T Khawaja (c Bairstow b Broad): 17; 65; 2; 0.

S P D Smith (b Curran) 76; 156; 8; 0.

S E Marsh (lbw b Broad): 61; 148; 8; 0.

M R Marsh (b Woakes): 9; 18; 1; 0.

T D Paine (b Anderson): 24; 36; 4; 0.

P J Cummins (c Cook b Broad): 4; 18; 0; 0.

J M Bird (lbw b Broad): 4; 6; 1; 0.

J R Hazlewood: 1; 12; 0; 0.

N M Lyon (lbw b Anderson): 0; 10; 0; 0.

Extras: 1lb; 0w; 1nb; 2.

Total: 327 all out after 119 overs.

Bowler: O; M; R; W.

J M Anderson: 29; 11; 61; 3.

S C J Broad: 28; 10; 51; 4.

C R Woakes: 22; 4; 72; 2.

M M Ali: 12; 0; 57; 0.

T K Curran: 21; 5; 65; 1.

D J Malan: 7; 1; 20; 0.

Fall of wickets: Order; Name; Runs.

1; C T Bancroft; 122.

2; D A Warner; 135.

3; U T Khawaja; 160.

4; S P D Smith; 260.

5; M R Marsh; 278.

6; S E Marsh; 314.

7; T D Paine; 318.

8; J M Bird; 325.

9; P J Cummins; 326.

10; N M Lyon; 327.

Umpires: H D P K Dharmasena, S Ravi, R S Madugalle, J S Wilson.

Australia: D A Warner, C T Bancroft, U T Khawaja, S P D Smith, S E Marsh, M R Marsh, T D Paine, P J Cummins, N M Lyon, J R Hazlewood, J M Bird.

England: A N Cook, M D Stoneman, J M Vince, J E Root, D J Malan, J M Bairstow, M M Ali, C R Woakes, T K Curran, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, S Sub. - Guardian service

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