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Yesterday, England produced their second-best bowling display of this Ashes, but were blunted by an extraordinary ton from David Warner and a pair of wonderfully patient knocks by Steve Smith and Shaun Marsh.
After Warner threatened to single-handedly bat England out of the Test, the tourists rebounded valiantly in the second session to take 3-38 in the space of 23 overs and leave Australia vulnerable at 3-160 on a sleepy MCG pitch.
But by stumps, the momentum had swung in Australia’s favour thanks to the efforts of Smith (65*) and Marsh (31*), in an unbroken stand of 84.
That pair went at just 2.6 runs per over during their partnership, yet scored slowly for different reasons than Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja had earlier.
Bancroft and Khawaja produced torturous innings, reflective of their glaring lack of form. Neither player looks safe in the side, especially with Glenn Maxwell pushing his case so strongly for a recall.
The selectors could bring Maxwell into the side and then push Marsh up to open in place of Bancroft, or Smith up to number three to fill Khawaja’s spot.
Neither move is likely to take place before the end of this series, as Bancroft and Khawaja will surely be provided further opportunities. But if they continue to bat as they have in their past few innings, the selectors will need to consider changes ahead of the upcoming four-Test series against South Africa, who have a supreme bowling attack.
Aside from his fluent 82* in his second Test innings, Bancroft has scores of 5, 10, 4, 25 and 26. At this point, his main issue appears not to be technical but rather mental. Since that half century, in which Bancroft played with authority, the 25-year-old has looked increasingly bereft of confidence.
Yesterday he managed to hang tough for some 34 overs, doing a good job of protecting those further down the order. In that time though, he barely found the middle of the bat from 95 balls faced, even when gifted a rank half-volley or wide delivery.
The Australian selectors are an impatient bunch so he will need to display great improvement over the next Test-and-half to avoid being dumped for the tour of South Africa.
Khawaja likely has greater leeway due to his generous success in the past against pace-heavy attacks, including the Proteas, against whom he averages almost 50 from four Tests.
Even still, Khawaja has averaged just 21 from his past five Tests and has been scratchy even during his two half-centuries in this Ashes. Yesterday he crawled to five from 47 balls as England stacked the offside and bowled a disciplined line and length. The left-hander flirted with a sequence of deliveries outside off stump before eventually nicking behind off Stuart Broad for 17.
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Like Bancroft, Khawaja appears short of confidence. In this series he has been a weak imitation of the man who dominated the past two Australian summers. His mindset won’t have been helped by being dropped twice this year – first for the Tests in India and then the series in Bangladesh.
There’s no doubt Australia look a far better side when Khawaja is commanding the first drop position. They’ll be desperate for him to regain touch in time for the massive challenge of tackling South Africa.
There are no such concerns about the form of Marsh, who has had an outstanding series. The 34-year-old has stepped up for Australia when they’ve needed him most in this Ashes. In the first innings at Brisbane, Australia were in peril at 4-76 when Marsh helped steady the innings, batting for almost three hours in making 51.
At Adelaide, Marsh cracked 126* to shepherd Australia from 5-209 to a match-winning first innings total of 8-442 declared. Yesterday, he again came to the fore at a critical juncture.
Now, there’s only so much praise you can afford a knock of 31*, but Marsh looked in control from the get go on a slow pitch which was by no means easy for batting.
Even against the part-time spin of Dawid Malan, who went for just 20 runs from seven hours, Marsh and Smith shackled their egos. Their patent aim was to survive to the second new ball so they could protect Australia’s middle-to-lower order.
They did this job brilliantly. While England remained patient, and bowled well to day’s end, they never looked like breaking the Marsh-Smith union. At 3-244, Australia are now in a strong position to build a first innings total of 400-plus.
Even 350 would be a solid total, while anything over 400 would be very good on a pitch which is not nearly as amenable to batting as the MCG surface of recent Boxing Day Tests.