Just when you think England can’t disappoint their supporters any further, they produce a performance to take the Christmas biscuit.
Boxing Day, and the start of the third Test at the MCG, was supposed to represent a fresh start, a chance to prove that Brisbane and Adelaide were the exceptions, not the rule.
Instead, they batted with barrel-scraping ineptitude to be dismissed for 185 – all but gift-wrapping the urn for Australia, complete with a decorative green and gold bow.
Australia captain Pat Cummins took three wickets early on as the hosts took control once more
Joe Root made 50 before giving his wicket away as England’s batsmen again failed to kick on
Ben Stokes made 22 before he was out, while Jos Buttler was another who gave it up cheaply
Joe Root’s side were all out for 185 but did get David Warner out just before play ended
With grim predictability, Australia closed the day on 61 for one, with England’s lone success the wicket of David Warner for 38, caught low in the gully by Zak Crawley off James Anderson.
It was a shellacking to rank with any, and by the close the MCG had long since begun to empty. Even some of the home fans may be beginning to tire of the one-way traffic.
In truth, the Ashes were already out of reach – for all Joe Root’s fighting talk in the build-up. But at least England might have gone down with a scrap. At least they might have made Australia work for their wickets after Pat Cummins won a good toss under heaving skies.
No such thing happened – and it was England’s senior players who had to shoulder the blame on a trip that is fast becoming one of the very worst.
Cummins, the returning Aussie skipper, bowled beautifully early on to dismiss the openers
England’s Haseeb Hameed was dismissed for a duck as the tourists toiled at the MCG
Root himself got to 50, as usual, then aimed an angled blade at a ball from Mitchell Starc that he had no business playing at, and was caught behind.
He immediately punched his bat in frustration – a gesture aimed not just at a scoreboard now reading 82 for four, but at his own inability to follow the diktat he himself had laid down after Adelaide, which involved behaving more sensibly outside off stump.
England’s captain has now made nine Test fifties in Australia without converting any of them. He must wonder whether fate has already made up its mind.
Joe Root made 50 but then immediately edged behind off the bowling of Mitchell Starc
The pain on Root’s face was evident to see as England’s middle-order crumbled on Boxing Day
Worse was to come. Having moved carefully to 25, Ben Stokes leaned back to ramp Cameron Green over the cordon, and succeeded only in steering him straight to Nathan Lyon in the gully. It looked awful as it sounds.
After tea, Jonny Bairstow, who had moved purposefully to 35 on his Test comeback, got into a tangle against Starc: caught between swaying out of the way of a short ball that followed him, and steering it ambitiously over the slips, he gloved a loopy catch to gully, where Green dived forward. Again, the optics were not ideal.
The nadir, however, had come in between. In the last over before tea, Jos Buttler advanced down the track to Lyon and deposited him straight down the throat of Scott Boland at deep square leg. He made three.
Ben Stokes cheaply gave up his wicket off the bowling of all-rounder Cameron Green
Australia debutant Scott Boland took his first Test wicket, trapping Mark Wood via lbw
Buttler had fought hard on the last day at Adelaide, where he revealed another side to his multi-faceted cricketing character. But this was the shot of a frazzled mind, and a moment that may hasten his departure from Test cricket. No doubt he was aiming straighter, but why play the shot at all just before the interval, with Bairstow going well?
Either side of this quartet of aberrations came little that was surprising as Australia asserted their superiority in pursuit of an Ashes-clinching 3-0 lead.
Cummins, back from his Covid scare, removed Haseeb Hameed in his first over – England’s 50th Test duck of a benighted year – then added Crawley, who was squared up by a beauty and caught in the gully. He made 12 on his own return, which was one better than his Test average in 2021.
Jonny Bairstow played valiantly to record 35 runs before a Starc bouncer led to his dismissal
Even Jack Leach played some shots down the ground before he edged to spinner Nathan Lyon
For a while, Dawid Malan and Root did what they have done all tour, and held Australia up. But then Australia did what they have done all tour, and took a wicket at a crucial moment: in the last over before lunch, Cummins induced an edge from Malan, who poked him to Warner at slip and trudged off for 14 from 66 balls. He had, to his credit, shown judgment outside off.
Later, Mark Wood – promoted to No 8 – was a maiden Test wicket for Boland, victim of a marginal call from umpire Paul Reiffel, who concluded that the ball had hit pad a fraction before it hit bat.
From 159 for eight, Ollie Robinson connected with a few, while Jack Leach managed his second six in Test cricket when he launched Lyon down the ground. But for the 12th time this year alone, England were dismissed for fewer than 200.
Lyon shakes hands with Boland after the bowler caught Ollie Robinson for the final wicket
David Warner made a rapid 38 before edging to James Anderson to give England faint hope
It’s all very well talking about leaving the ball and showing spirit and resilience, but England are a broken team now, reduced to counting how many runs Root can score before the year ends (current tally: 1,680). Australia know it.
The way Harris and in particular Warner began the reply dripped with contempt. Wood was a threat from round the wicket, but otherwise progress was untroubled, and the 50 came up in just the 13th over.
Anderson got rid of Warner, but it felt like a blip on a day when England wore black armbands for Ray Illingworth, who led them to victory here in 1970-71, and died on Christmas Day. What he would have made of this does not bear thinking about.