England gave Australia a contest for the first time this Ashes series on day two of the third Test but the locals are still in the box seat to retain the urn with another crushing victory in Melbourne.
Led by veteran paceman James Anderson, the tourists dominated proceedings for the first two sessions of day two as they bowled out Australia for 267 but their brittle batters again brought that good work undone as England collapsed to 4-31 at stumps.
Still facing a deficit of 51 when they resume on day three, England’s hopes of staving off defeat on Tuesday will rest on captain Joe Root’s shoulders yet again after Mitchell Starc and Scott Boland tore through the top order.
Starc, buoyant after bashing a quick-fire 24 not out, removed Zak Crawley for five via a snick to keeper Alex Carey and then had England in deeper trouble on the next ball when he trapped Dawid Malan in front for a golden duck.
Malan reviewed umpire Paul Wilson’s verdict but unfortunately for him, the Starc thunderbolt was ruled to be collecting the top of leg stump.
Test debutant Boland then joined in the flurry in the second-last over before the close of play when he nicked off Haseeb Hameed for seven and then removed nightwatchman Jack Leach for a second-ball duck after he let an off-cutter cannon into his off stump.
The MCG crowd of 40,000 was pumping as the Australians tore into the tourists.
“That was great, that was absolutely bouncing,” said Australia’s top scorer Marcus Harris.
“For 40-odd thousand it felt like 100,000 and Starcy on a hat-trick was unbelievable and when Scott Boland ran down to Bay 13 after two wickets in that over that was brilliant. That was something you dream of as a kid to be part of.”
Australia resumed on 1-61 and nightwatchman Nathan Lyon’s departure for 10 caused no great drama, but when Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith followed him back to the pavilion in the morning session, England were enjoying a rare period of dominance.
Labuschagne nicked a rising Mark Wood leg-cutter to Root at slip for one before Smith’s 16-run start was brought to a shuddering halt when Anderson induced an inside edge which rattled his timber.
Hat-trick balls don't get much closer than that! ????
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) December 27, 2021
At 4-110, Travis Head and Harris mounted a rescue mission with a 61-run stand before the South Australian left-hander edged Ollie Robinson to Root on 27.
After a lean spell in which his spot in the team was under serious scrutiny before the match, Harris’ half-century gave his confidence a much-needed boost and he got a life on 63 when Jos Buttler missed a leg-side stumping with the Victorian stranded.
But he didn’t convert the opportunity into three figures when he gave Root his third catch and Anderson his third wicket on 76 to leave the hosts six down and still five runs shy of England’s total of 185.
Cameron Green and Alex Carey guided Australia past England’s total before the West Australian all-rounder was unlucky to be given out LBW to Leach’s spin on 17 to a ball which the review showed was just clipping the top of leg stump.
Carey followed soon after for 19 when Ben Stokes caught the edge of his bat and Buttler made no mistake this time around, leaving Australia 8-219.
Just when it looked like Australia would succumb to the second new ball and be left holding a slim lead, Pat Cummins and Starc counterattacked with a hard-hitting ninth-wicket stand of 34 before the skipper skied Anderson to Hameed at point on 21.
Anderson, the same 39-year-old record-breaking English bowler who was deemed surplus to requirements for the series opener just a fortnight ago by the team’s “brains trust”, finished with 4-38 from 24 top-class overs of seam and swing. In his first spell he bowled six overs for the figures of 1-1 with five maidens. The run came from a dropped catch.
After play he said he had been fit for Brisbane, just wasn’t selected.
Boland received a rousing cheer from the home fans after the Victorian notched his first Test runs before the innings wrapped up on 267 when he edged Wood to Crawley at second slip on six to give the hosts an 82-run buffer.
The day’s play started half an hour late after two members of England’s support staff and two family members had tested positive to COVID-19 after undergoing rapid antigen tests.
England’s entire touring party underwent tests on the morning of the match and remained at the hotel until they were cleared, arriving less than an hour before the start of play.
All players and support staff members from each team were due to undergo COVID-19 tests on Monday night and the results will determine the fate of this match and the next two in the series.
One possible scenario which has been floated is that the fourth and fifth matches, scheduled for Sydney and Hobart, could be transferred to the MCG.
Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley addressed the media on Monday morning and said the plan was to continue with the original schedule but they would “rely on the protocols. It’s a day-by-day proposition.”