Australia and England shook hands with an hour to play at the MCG on Saturday to confirm what many had feared: that the Boxing Day Test would end in a draw.
It was a decent result for Australia, who found themselves in strife after their worst collective performance of the series. England controlled the game, restricting the home side to a modest first innings while Alastair Cook rolled back the years to bat them out of the contest.
Rain on Day 4 all but confirmed the stalemate, with another century Steve Smith ensuring there were no late surprises.
The whitewash might be off, but there was still plenty of intrigue to unpack.
1. Cook serves up a vintage feast
Drawn Tests are not wasted efforts and nor are dead rubbers. Granted, the series is already gone, but achievements in games such as these still count. The beauty of cricket is that even when a result is out of reach there’s an infinite bounty of statistical glory to chase.
In the first three Tests Cook scored 83 runs at an average of 13.83. After four he has 327 runs at 54.5. His unbeaten 244 was a stirring comeback to warm the cockles of even the most parochial Aussie heart.
It also earnt him a spot on the honour board at the MCG’s Percy Beames Bar for the highest score by a visiting batsman, displacing Viv Richards’ 208 from 1984-85. The mismatched typeface will surely give graphic designers sleepless nights, but you can bet it doesn’t bother Cook a jot.
It’s no surprise that England’s best game of the tour coincided with improved contributions from their big four. Cook’s marathon was well supported by Joe Root, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. If only things could have clicked sooner.
2. Curator drops the ball with drop-in pitch
The recurring theme across the five days was the pitch, which was so comically lifeless it deserved its own dead parrot sketch.
Not every pitch has to be a juicy seamer, but when it starts off dry you hope it at least deteriorates to bring the spinners into play. The deck was DOA, but the corpse remained frustratingly intact save for some occasional low bounce.
There was criticism from all quarters. Smith said it looked ready days in advance, while others suggested it would be better suited to T20.
Anderson didn’t mince his words after Day 1: “I think people want to see entertaining cricket, especially in an iconic match like the Boxing Day Test match at the MCG.
“I know it wasn’t exciting to watch. It wasn’t exciting to play in, to be honest. There’s not a lot we can do about it from here. That’s the pitch that we’ve got for the next five days and we’ve just go to put up with it.”
Part of the problem comes down to a game of groundsman musical chairs this summer. David Sandurski left the MCG a few months ago to take over at the Gabba, while Matthew Page is on his way over from Perth after the WACA’s final bow. In the meantime the MCG was left to acting curator Michael Salvatore.
The writing was on the wall after Victoria’s three home Shield games this season yielded three draws, but the MCC can ill afford a repeat next year. It’s not simply a matter of all drop-in pitches being sub-par either. Page definitely has his work cut out in 2018, but he need only look to Adelaide for the recipe to drop-ins done right.
3. Fans trade ‘cheat’ barbs
The Ashes is always a fractious affair, with the rivalry hyped up to unsustainable levels. Something’s gotta give. Rather than simmering down with the series already won and lost, however, things have turned a new shade of unpleasant.
Two incidents threatened to mar the Test. The first was Usman Khawaja’s contentious catch to dismiss Stuart Broad on Day 3. Running in from the deep, Khawaja slightly misjudged the flight of the high ball, diving full length, fumbling and face-planting before rising sheepishly with ball in hand. The body language wasn’t great and you can understand the doubt. Replays were inconclusive but the soft dismissal from the umpires sealed Broad’s fate.
The following day England came under fire for alleged ball tampering. Their fielders were warned for brazenly hurling the ball into the turf, and Anderson was snapped digging a thumbnail into the Kookaburra.
Neither incident proved match-defining, and the players were quick to play them down in the aftermath. Still, it was a stark reminder that Twitter can be a terrible place with little room for nuanced, respectful debate.
4. Bye bye Birdy?
It was a sorry return to Test cricket for Jackson Bird. Fair to say he wouldn’t have been dreaming of 0-108 from 30 overs when he went to bed on Christmas Day. Now it looks like it could be one and done for the big man.
To be fair, there wasn’t much going in his favour. For a seamer who likes to kiss the surface and nibble it around, the lifeless MCG deck was a nightmare against a wounded England outfit with a point to prove.
On form he was rightfully at the front of the queue. In four Shield outings this season he’s picked up 25 wickets at 16.56 ‒ though none of those games were at the MCG.
Worse still was the Barmy Army’s eagerness to go in for the kill. Chants of, “You’re the worst bird on the pitch!” and, “That seagull there, he’s better than you!” can’t have been much fun. Funny, yes. But not much fun.
5. Spots still up for grabs
Bird aside, despite their unassailable 3-0 series lead, the Aussies have a selection puzzle to solve.
There’s talk of resting Pat Cummins with a view to the upcoming South Africa tour. Mitchell Starc likewise may not be risked even if he can prove his fitness. Though Australia may not want to test their ability to take 20 wickets without Starc if they don’t have to, his absence in Melbourne sparked a distinct tonal shift.
A lot will come down to whether they opt for a second spinner, though some were surprised to see Ashton Agar as the name added to the squad. There’s always an unshakeable urge among fans to throw a leg spinner in the mix, and Mitchell Swepson would have been an exciting prospect for Sydney.
Question marks continue to hover around Khawaja, though the surge of criticism about ‘body language’ and looking ‘lazy’ has an unsavoury hue to it. What’s certain is that averaging 27 in favourable conditions without any world-class spinners bearing down on him is a problem.
Cameron Bancroft is also no certainty. He bludgeoned his way into the team through sheer weight of runs but averages just 29.83 in this series. His closed-off front foot and swinging arc look increasingly easy to exploit. Test openers need to be able to rely on their forward defence if nothing else, and Bancroft’s looks decidedly suspect.
We’re unlikely to see any batting changes in Sydney, but Glenn Maxwell waits in the wings for South Africa.