On a day when the pandemic cast its latest shadow over cricket in the time of Covid, Mitchell Starc and Scott Boland dismantled England on the second evening at the MCG, as Australia came within breathing distance of a 3-0 lead – and the retention of the Ashes.
With doubt surrounding this series after four members of the large England entourage tested positive for the virus, the players could do little more than crack on with the business of scoring runs and taking wickets.
Thanks to a blistering new-ball spell from Starc, and a dramatic penultimate over of the day from Boland, the local hero, the Australians reached stumps a step closer to their objective. England were 31 for four and – despite the presence of Joe Root and Ben Stokes – all but gone. They still need 51 to avoid an innings defeat.
Australia are just six wickets from the Ashes after a dramatic end to day two at the MCG
Mitchell Starc took two wickets as England’s top-order imploded once again late in the day
Zak Crawley (pic) was the first to be dismissed before Dawid Malan went for a golden duck
Night-watchman Jack Leach was the fourth wicket after he left a ball which hit the top of off
It was a dreadful end to what had been an encouraging day for England with the ball
England’s openers had walked out into Melbourne’s cauldron with just under an hour to go before the close, knowing that survival might give their team a chance of doing something special next day.
Instead, with the fourth ball of the fifth over, Starc had Zak Crawley caught behind for five, as a rigid forward defensive, bat hung out in hope rather than expectation, produced a simple edge for wicketkeeper Alex Carey.
Next ball, Dawid Malan stayed back in his crease, as is his wont, and was hit on the pad by one that nipped in. Was it missing leg stump? Was it too high?
Umpire Paul Wilson thought for a moment, and upheld Starc’s shout. Malan’s inevitable review confirmed the closeness of the decision, but the ball was clipping the outside of the top of leg stump, and Wilson’s on-field ruling was upheld.
England No 3 Malan stayed back in his crease and was trapped lbw by Starc on his first ball
Out walked Root to face the hat-trick ball, with a crowd that – at its peak – numbered 42,626 baying for blood. He very nearly gave them what they wanted, beaten outside off as the MCG came close to eruption.
But the torment was not over. Haseeb Hameed dutifully played the line of Boland’s third ball, and was caught behind for seven – another failure on a tour that is fast becoming unwatchable for England’s young opener.
Jack Leach then walked out as nightwatchman, only to play no stroke at his second ball – and lose his off stump. The crowd were delirious, then fake-outraged when Stokes took a while to emerge from the dressing-room.
Scott Boland had a dream conclusion to day two taking two wickets amid a terrific atmosphere
Earlier, Jimmy Anderson had been central to limiting Australia’s first-innings lead to 82, collecting four for 33 from 23 immaculate overs as the hosts were dismissed for 267 in reply to England’s 185.
And it made the laxness of England’s strokeplay on Boxing Day – especially from the senior core of their middle order – all the more galling. Had even one of Root, Stokes, Jonny Bairstow or Jos Buttler knuckled down, rather than succumbed to the increasingly English trait of needing to feel bat on ball, they might now be looking at a lead.
The ifs and buts of this series, however, will one day provide enough material for a small novel. For England, the reality is proving more unpalatable.
At least their stuck to their guns on a sunny, blustery day in Melbourne, chipping away at Australia’s batting line-up and, for the first time in the series, staying within touching distance of their hosts.
England’s dramatic collapse with the bat followed a day when they toiled hard with the ball
With Australia resuming on 61 for one, Ollie Robinson struck first, as nightwatchman Nathan Lyon edged a wild drive to Buttler to make it 76 for two. And it was 84 for three when Mark Wood found the hitherto unlocatable outside edge of Marnus Labuschagne’s bat and Root clung on at slip.
When Steve Smith was bowled via a thick inside edge by Anderson for 16, Australia were 110 for four, and still 75 behind.
But Marcus Harris, riding his luck outside off stump, and Travis Head settled in against the nervy spin of Leach, bowling for the first time since his Gabba nightmare, and added 61 either side of lunch before another clatter of wickets.
Robinson had Head caught by Root for 27, playing away from his body, before Harris finally nibbled once too often, edging Anderson to Root to depart for 76 – three short of equalling his Test-best.
The ever-impressive James Anderson ended Australia’s innings with four wickets to his name
England seamer Ollie Robinson also took two wickets, including that of Travis Head
After tea, Leach won a marginal lbw decision to get rid of Cameron Green for 17 – and was mobbed by team-mates who understood the significance of the moment – and Carey drove loosely at Stokes: 171 for four had become 219 for eight.
Had England taken the last two wickets quickly, they might have kept the deficit to 45. Instead, Cummins, Starc and Scott Boland helped chisel out a further 48. In a low-scoring game, Australia’s lead was more than useful.
As so often over the last 18 months, however, much of the drama took place before a ball had been bowled, as it emerged that four members of England’s touring party – two of the backroom coaching staff and two family members – had tested positive for Covid.
The news meant a swift round of later-flow tests for all the England players, who had already boarded the team bus to make the short ride from the Park Hyatt to the MCG, but had to return to their hotel rooms to await their results.
There was concern before play started of a Covid scare as England arrived late to the MCG
When the tests all came back negative, the players headed for the ground, minus Stuart Broad and Craig Overton, who stayed back simply as a precaution, and another member of the backroom staff, who was deemed a close contact.
Cricket Australia chief executive Nick Hockley sounded bullish about the prospects of finishing both this Test and the series, with the fourth and fifth matches scheduled for Sydney, where the omicron variant has spread more quickly than anywhere else in Australia, and Hobart, where the authorities have carefully managed the virus.
But both teams were due to undergo a fresh round of PCR tests after play on the second day, with officials on both sides holding their breath.
Both teams are due to undergo a fresh round of PCR tests after play on the second day
Jack Leach got his first wicket of the Ashes as he trapped Cameron Green via lbw for 17
More positive results would cast doubt on the series, especially since rules governing close contacts vary from state to state. Had the four positive cases occurred in New South Wales or Tasmania, all close contacts would have faced a hard quarantine.
‘Everyone now is on high alert, everyone is being extra cautious,’ said Hockley.
‘But everyone is desperate to play. They’ve been living with this for 18 months, and both sides are really committed to continuing with the series.’
TOP SPIN AT THE TEST
By Lawrence Booth in Melbourne
Two more ducks on the second evening, for Dawid Malan and nightwatchman Jack Leach, took England’s Test tally for 2021 to 52, leaving them with an outside chance of breaking their own record for a calendar year of 54 in 1998.
Jimmy Anderson’s figures of four for 33 from 23 overs meant he finished the second day with a fractionally better Ashes average in Australia (67 wickets at 33.20) than in England (44 at 33.38). It was his seventh haul of four or more in Australia, and his second-best analysis, behind five for 43 with the pink ball at Adelaide four years ago.
His performance continued his excellent first-innings record in 2021, which now reads 33 wickets at just 16 apiece. His figures in the second innings were less impressive: six at 48.
Australian opener Marcus Harris made his first half-century in 17 Test innings stretching back to January 2019 – nearly three years ago. Another three runs, and he would have equalled his highest Test score of 79, made in that game against India at Sydney.
After making 25 and 27 at Brisbane, Haseeb Hameed has now been dismissed for six, nought, nought and seven. Since his return to the Test in the summer following an absence of nearly five years, he has made 205 runs at 18.
Meanwhile, his opening partner Zak Crawley’s removal for five means he averages 10 since his 267 against Pakistan at the Ageas Bowl in 2020.