Slow motion replays of Mitchell Starc grabbing at his back, combined with an extremely light load for the big paceman, raised fears that he was carrying an injury just two hours into the Boxing Day Test.
But captain Pat Cummins, who grabbed the three wickets to fall in the first session, said it was his oversight rather than an injury issue that restricted Starc to just three overs in the first session.
“That’s probably my fault,” said Cummins when quizzed about the lack of Starc action at the lunch break.
“There was a bit of wind down the bottom so I didn’t want to bowl him there. He’ll start up here. Yeah, I stuffed up there.”
Cummins won the toss then removed Haseeb Hameed, Zak Crawley and Dawid Malan to give Australia ascendency.
“He can not doing anything wrong, he’s the perfect human being,” said Shane Warne on Fox Cricket.
“He doesn’t seem to make a mistake. Wins the toss when he needs to , loses it when it’s a good toss to lose like at the Gabba, he’s been fantastic.”
Cummins missed the previous Test through being a close contact with a positive COVID case in Adelaide and admitted it was a frustrating game of watching from his couch at home.
But the rest did nothing to derail him from his superb form.
Right now, at 2-9, Pat Cummins’ Test average of 21.04 is bettered by only three bowlers in the past 50 years:
Malcolm Marshall 20.94
Joel Garner 20.97
Curtly Ambrose 20.99
(min 100 wickets)#Ashes
— Adam Burnett (@AdamBurnett09) December 26, 2021
“He’s one of the all time great bowlers Australia’s produced,” said Warne.
“When Australia needs something he’s the man to go to. He’s relentless with his line and length – you can’t remember a short wide cut shot or a clip off the pads for four . He does not bowl them. What a specimen!”
Former England captain Michael Vaughan said he expected Cummins’ leadership to get even better as Australia heads into the 2023 Ashes in England.
“So far he’s done nothing wrong,” Vaughan said.
“In Brisbane he got a five-fa, he’s close to another five-fa here. He lifts when it matters.
“It’s only early into his captaincy but over the next few years he’s going top develop into an even better leader. It’s quite easy for him at the minute. It won’t be as easy as this going forward but Australia has not won in England for quite a number of years, they drew last time.
“I’d be amazed if he’s not the captain in a 2023 Ashes winning team in England with what he’s got.”
Root filthy as new tactic backfires
England captain Joe Root was once again in the firing line early on Boxing Day, openers Haseeb Hameed and Zak Crawley both falling within the first eight overs to bring him to the crease.
But showing a positive intent, Root would once again look a class above most of his teammates, partnering up with Dawid Malan for a 48-run stand only broken on the stroke of lunch by Cummins.
After the break, Root would pick up right where he left off, passing 50 for the third time this series, and his ninth on Australian shores.
His success was down to a notable change in tactics – cricket analyst Ben Jones noted on Twitter that the captain had played a shot off all bar one of his first 43 balls faced.
Lots of talk about how Joe Root was going to change his method to try and play at the ball a bit less. He's played a shot at 42 of his first 43 balls
— Ben Jones (@benjonescricket) December 26, 2021
However, the move would backfire just moments after reaching his half-century, Root drawn into a waft outside his off stump by Mitchell Starc, Alex Carey gleefully pouching a simple catch.
Starc gets the big one – England's captain is gone!
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) December 26, 2021
Root’s anger at his dismissal was palpable; having been the only Englishman who appeared capable of standing up to the Australian attack early, his wicket leaves the middle and lower orders vulnerable placed, with England still shy of 100.
It means he’ll need 109 in the second innings to break Mohammad Yousuf’s record for the most Test runs in a calendar year.
‘They’ve got everything wrong’: Eyebrows raised at Poms’ selection yet again
Vaughan and Warne earlier expressed surprise that the tourists left veteran paceman Stuart Broad out of their XI for the must-win third Test.
Broad’s omission was one of four changes for the England team, who batted first on what looked a juicy pitch after returning Australian captain Pat Cummins won the toss.
Broad was set aside for Ollie Robinson surprising the Fox Cricket commentators ahead of the toss.
“So far the only thing they’ve done right on the trip is turn up on time,” said Vaughan.
“They’ve got pretty much everything wrong. Selection, tactics have not been right.
“Stuart Broad should be playing here. He should have played in Brisbane. How Stuart Broad’s not going to be bowling around the wicket onto David Warner on a green top ,I just can’t fathom that. The quality he brings.”
Under fire England captain Joe Root looked as glum as the Melbourne sky when he lost the toss. He won it in Brisbane and batted when the wicket did plenty, and said he would have chosen to bowl in Melbourne had he won the toss.
The toss loss just piled more pressure on Root, who is still searching for a first Ashes ton in Australia.
“He’s a great guy, a fantastic human being but he’s made mistakes over the last year – getting it wrong in Brisbane with selection, getting it wrong in Adelaide,” said Vaughan.
“Broad and Anderson weren’t brilliant in Adelaide but all players will tell you they need a game or two then you start to see the real quality,” said Vaughan.
Warne agreed: “Ollie Robinson could bowl well and take wickets. Stuart Broad, this week is such a big week for the senior players when you’re 2-0 down, with no Broad it relies on a few others.
“I would have played Broad this week for sure, more for the fact you’re 2-0 down and need senior players to stand up.
These guys Broad and Anderson feed off each other. I was lucky enough to have Glenn McGrath – all good sides have two bowlers who work really well together.
“Broad and Anderson together it’s a healthy competition with them. I would have left Robinson out and played Broad.”
Vaughan and Warne also highlighted Ben Stokes ineffectual impact in the opening two matches.
“Stokes is two Test matches into his comeback – we’d like to see Stokes be a bit more aggressive,” said Vaughan.
“He’s almost trying to play the pure Test match way. He’s almost trying to play and bat for a long period.
“He’s a better player when he’s of the mindset I’m in now I’m going to attack.”
Nathan Lyon tied Stokes down in Adelaide and Warne said the English allrounder need to wrest the initiative.
“When the bowler starts to know that the batsman isn’t going to score and is trying to survive there’
s no pressure on the bowler. Even if you’re trying to draw the game you’ve got to put a bit of pressure back on the bowler.
“I reckon this is the Test where Ben Stokes says you know what I’m here.”
Vaughan meanwhile repeated his thought that England needed to come out and be more nasty in this match, after a great spirit between the teams in the two Tests so far.
“I think Joe would’ve said over the last few days a few honest truths: ‘Players, look yourselves in the mirror and motivate yourself. I shouldn’t have to motivate you, you’re representing England, you’re at the MCG, you’re 2-0 in an Ashes series. Get tough, be a bit nasty,’” Vaughan told Fox Cricket.
“England have had two times in the series where they’ve been completely against the wall – Brisbane in the second innings in that partnership with Malan and Root, you could see there was a really competitive nature about that pair, and on the last day in Adelaide, they were losing the game but at least they showed a little bit of spirit and fight.
“I think Joe will be saying to this side: ‘The England supporters and we as a group, we expect a lot more from ourselves. Let’s get a bit nasty.’
“There’s been too many mornings where I’ve turned on the television screen and I saw them all shaking hands and having conversations with Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon. Do that in the dressing rooms afterwards, not before the start of play. They’ve been too nice, let’s see if a nastier England side can produce some better results.”
Another old Ashes warrior, Glenn McGrath, has also found the atmosphere not to his liking.
“I remember, when Nasser Hussain came out here with England, they weren’t even allowed to talk to us or say ‘G’day’,” McGrath told the UK Telegraph.
“It’s all about body language. How much does it mean, representing your country? England have to go back to the drawing board and have a real good think about this.
“With the IPL and the Big Bash, these players know one another well. When you see batsmen and bowlers joking around at the end of the over, even when it’s one-sided.
“I’d love there to be more of a battle. Australia aren’t going to take their foot off the throttle, now that they have Pat Cummins coming back. James Anderson looks like he’s down on pace, and the ball’s not swinging. This could get pretty ugly very quickly.”
Hazlewood’s fitness test
Josh Hazlewood was at the MCG, presenting a new baggy green cap to Scott Boland on debut.
But before play Hazlewood acknowledged he was still at a loss as to whether he would return in Sydney for the fourth Test after still being affected by a side injury.
“I’m still a little bit away, (this Test) is probably a week early,” Hazlewood told SEN radio.
He said he would head to the nets later in the Melbourne Test to give himself a guide as to his prospects for Sydney.
“We’re still not sure, we’re going to take this week as it comes and likely have a bowl on Day 3 or Day 5, see how that goes and then build up from there.
“The workloads are still there from the first Test, but obviously I haven’t had a bowl in 10-12 days and we’ll see how it goes on Day 3.
“It’s probably more on feel this one, it’s a bit of an interesting one, it’s the intercostals in between the ribs, there’s a slight tear.
“I’ve never had it before, I’ve had the normal oblique side strain, which is the common one, but we’re taking each day as it comes and we’ll make the decisions on basically how I feel.”