For Joe Root and England, it was the same sorry old story on Australian soil, a nightmare after Christmas. Even with a Covid-caused crowd of just 57,100 at the MCG, this is Australian cricket’s grandest stage; for England, everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong.
England made four changes to their side for the sixth time this year, and 22nd time in 10 Tests. Asked to bat first with the skies grey and the pitch green, they lost their openers cheaply on the way to being bowled out for 185. By stumps, Australia had batted 14 overs, losing just one wicket and scoring at four an over. It really felt like the end of days.
Root? It was fifty and out once more, which is the tale of his 12 Tests in Australia. Nine times down under he has made a half-century, but never has he gone on to three figures. Again, he was caught behind the wicket, this time by keeper Alex Carey off Mitchell Starc, fiddling at exactly the sort of ball he has been imploring himself to leave alone. He left with a huge swish of his bat that made plain his frustration.
Root had bullishly said he was ready to “bang out a hundred”. For all the world it looked like this, with perfect timing on the grandest stage, he was as good as his word. It had been a sparkling little innings – little, sadly, being the operative word – from Root, totally dominating England’s scoring and looking as at ease as he ever has in Australia.
The running between the wickets was hard, the placement delicate, and another milestone passed: when he reached 27, he moved into third place, past Graeme Smith’s 2008, on the list of most runs win a calendar year. A century in his penultimate innings of a remarkable year would have sent him soaring up towards the top two, Mohammad Yousuf in 2006 and Viv Richards in 1976. In his last, he needs 31 to knock off Richards, and 109 to edge past Yousuf. How grateful he would be for 109 – and not for his own records.
The most remarkable thing about Root’s year is the gulf in class between the best and the rest. And so it was here once more. The new opening pair, Haseeb Hameed and Zak Crawley, lasted no time at all, unable to live with Pat Cummins. Dawid Malan stuck around gamely again, but fell on the stroke of lunch, to Cummins again, in a grievous blow to England’s hopes.
By the time Root departed, he had 1,680 runs for the year. England’s next best are Rory Burns (dropped, on 530), and nobody else has even made 400. So Root has 1,150 more than second place. Only Malan, back in the side for five matches, has an average (38.5) even half of Root’s (62).
Root had been giving England hope after Pat Cummins prised out the top three in two sensational spells in the opening session. There was little Haseeb Hameed could do about the thin edge to a beautiful ball, but Zak Crawley and Dawid Malan, having looked good, might reflect that their dismissals, caught at gully and first slip respectively, were to the kind of balls England have spent all week talking about leaving.
Hameed made a duck, England’s 50th of the year. Four of them belong to him, and 14 to openers. Crawley, meanwhile, went for 12, one more than his average in 2021; that said, he has been parachuted into a Test series with no preparation. Malan shared a stand of 48 with Root, digging in hard, before falling to the ball before lunch. Given England’s dependence on that pair, it was a hammer blow.
If the three wickets to fall in the first session were to excellent bowling, the three between lunch and tea were to batsman’s error, each worst than the last. Root could not resist seeking a single off Starc, and paid the price. Ben Stokes, having got himself in, attempted to upper-cut the excellent Cameron Green, and tangled himself into being caught at point. Most alarming, depressing and shocking was Jos Buttler, who battled so gamely in Adelaide, but fell slogging Nathan Lyon in the over before tea. England had ended each session with a wicket.
It was left to Jonny Bairstow, back in the side with no form to speak of, to work with the tail. He played solidly enough, riding his luck with a couple of inside edges and crunching handsome boundaries. He fell in embarrassing fashion, floored by a Starc bouncer, with his uppercut ballooning to gully off the glove.
By then, Mark Wood had become Scott Boland’s maiden Test wicket, lbw. And while Ollie Robinson and Jack Leach had some fun, swinging hard, it was far too late. With Lyon picking up a couple more, England were all out for 185.
That David Warner would fly out of the blocks seemed inevitable. He zipped along, gleefully, before edging to gully for a 41-ball 38. England, with the exception of Wood, were desperately flat, and runs flowed with ease for Australia. Their reward will be a nice day for batting on Sunday, when England are ripe for the taking.