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Late on day two, the Melbourne Cricket Ground rocked. Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, having swelled Australia’s lead with the bat to 82, were getting stuck in a quite scintillating passage of fast bowling.
It had been the most competitive day of the series, one on which England had done so much right despite it appearing a position absolutely tailor-made for self-implosion. They had been awful with the bat on day one, ending it just 124 in front with nine Aussie wickets to take. And they started day two by learning that two support staff and two family members had tested positive for Covid-19, throwing the whole tour into doubt.
But, now, England’s callow top order could not live with Australia and, for once, it did not feel shameful. Cheered on by a raucous crowd – officially 42,626, but making more noise than some Boxing Day full houses – Starc and Cummins did not bowl a bad ball.
Cummins hit Haseeb Hameed, who had two ducks in a row, on the forearm with a vicious first ball, then had Zak Crawley missed by first slip on 0. Never mind, on five, Mitchell Starc had Crawley feeling in the corridor outside off stump, and caught behind. The opening stand was worth seven, England’s equal second-highest of the series.
First ball, Dawid Malan was dismissed by the most marginal lbw call, so out walked Joe Root, for one final time in his epic year, on a hat-trick. He survived it, just.
It was a breathtaking passage of cricket in which every ball survived felt an achievement. After nine stunning overs, Scott Boland, the hometown hero debutant, came on and – perhaps inevitably – dismissed Hameed, caught behind, then Jack Leach, the nightwatchman, in the space of three balls.
Ben Stokes might have been timed out, and he and Root made it to stumps. By then, England were 31 for four, still 51 behind.
England were in a bind, but had done so much right earlier on. James Anderson was magnificent, finishing with figures of 23-10-33-4, and bowling 18 overs for 19 runs on the day. Mark Wood, still operating above 90mph in his 20th over, deserved so much more than two wickets. Marnus Labuschagne, the best batter in the world, and Steve Smith, their nemesis, were dismissed for a combined 17 runs. Their slip catching was much improved, with four sharp chances snaffled and none dropped.
They were not perfect. They let slip four (very tough) chances; three catches and a run out. Their tactics for 45 minutes after lunch were mystifying. And not all of their bowling was up to scratch, especially as they allowed the last two wickets to put on 48.
After a slightly slow start, Ollie Robinson – looking leggy – nipped nightwatchman Nathan Lyon’s ambitious innings in the bud, caught at first slip. Then Wood’s first ball to Labuschagne squared the newly-minted No1 up, and ended up in the hands of Root, the man he overtook. It ended a run of 14 first innings with a lowest score of 47.
Smith gave a desperately tough early chance, an inside edge skimming off his thigh, so nearly out of keeper Jos Buttler’s reach in a start that was skittish even by his standards. Anderson was unperturbed, though, and soon found another inside edge that cannoned into Smith’s stumps.
Marcus Harris, for once against England, was proving an obdurate survivor. On 36, he was given out lbw off Ben Stokes, but his inside edge saved him. And, in the company of Travis Head, Harris was grateful for the strange decision to give Jack Leach a long bowl with very defensive fields straight after lunch. They settled, happily, and added 61.
England belatedly sharpened up their tactics, with Leach bowling better from over the wicket, and Buttler missed a sharp legside stumping off Harris. Robinson found Head’s edge, then Anderson Harris’s – for his second highest score in Tests, 73.
England were back in it, and Australia were six down by the time they took the lead. Leach weaselled out Cameron Green, and Anderson got Carey, but Cummins and Starc got swinging. When England took the final wicket, little did they know that this was just the start.