England’s Ashes dreams were left in ruins after a ferocious final hour on the second evening of the Boxing Day Test.
The bowlers bowled fantastically well to keep the series alive as they knocked Australia, who scraped their way to a handy 82-run lead, over for 267.
But England’s top order collapsed under the intense pressure of a baying G crowd as Mitchell Starc and debutant Scott Boland took two wickets apiece to leave the tourists staring into the Ashes abyss at 31/4 – still 51 runs shy of making the Aussies bat again.
No-one would blame evergreen James Anderson for thinking ‘what is the point?’ after watching the batters fall like dominos once again after his brilliance with the ball gave Chris Silverwood’s side a glimmer of hope. It was a day which encapsulated the series so far as the life was beaten out of the visitors after getting themselves into the game.
The England swing king, well into his 19th year as an international bowler, ages like a fine wine. He has taken a phenomenal 159 wickets at an incredible average of 21.30 since his 35th birthday. And he led from the front once again with fantastic figures of 4/33 as the bowlers forced the tourists back into the contest, albeit briefly.
They attacked the edge with devastating regularity, but the Aussies built a vital lead thanks to some lower-order resistance.
It should have been even better for the English, but their chronic issue of failing to blow away the tail reared its ugly head. A stubborn 34-run ninth-wicket stand between Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc frustrated Joe Root and provided the hosts with a healthy lead.
As much as Chris Silverwood’s brittle batters have been lambasted for not leaving the ball well enough on this tour, the hosts were just as culpable on an enthralling day of Test cricket – where 13 wickets fell.
Anderson was the chief destroyer. At one stage in the afternoon session the 39-year-old took 2/2 from eight probing overs as the travelling Barmy Army roared into renditions of their favourite ‘Oh, Jimmy Jimmy’ chant.
Australia eventually resumed on 61/1 after a delayed start. Four positive Covid cases, two support staff and two family members, came out of the English camp in the morning. But the players returned negative rapid antigen tests to allow play to go ahead half an hour late.
Ollie Robinson removed nightwatchman Nathan Lyon early in the piece before Marnus Labuschagne suffered a rare failure as he nicked a Mark Wood delivery for one in his first innings since becoming the No1 ranked Test batter in the world.
England were firmly on top when Steve Smith inside-edged Anderson onto the stumps as the hosts were reduced to 110/4. A defiant 61-run stand between Marcus Harris, who made 76, and Travis Head was broken after a loose shot from the latter. And that sparked a flurry of wickets as Australia lost four for 48.
But the Aussies started to get away after Alex Carey’s wayward shot. Captain Cummins and Starc proved difficult to dislodge as two tough chances went begging with the new ball.
Anderson almost pulled off the catch of the series as a full-length diving effort went down and Robinson shelled a sharp caught and bowled chance in his follow-through.
There was an injury worry for the visitors as Robinson went off clutching his left hamstring following the drop. But after Ben Stokes finished that over, workhorse Robinson returned to continue his spell.
Wood took the last wicket of Boland to set up a make-or-break hour with the bat in the context of keeping the series alive. But England’s top order were blown away by some world-class new-ball bowling from Cummins and Starc.
Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say the opposition are just too good and you have to give credit to Australia for the way they got the ball talking during those tough 12 overs.
Left-armer Starc blew the innings open with two wickets in two balls to leave the MCG rocking after Zak Crawley first tickled an edge behind before Dawid Malan was pinned lbw for a golden duck. Root survived the hat-trick ball. But Victorian favourite Boland struck twice in his first over, dismissing Haseeb Hameed for his fourth successive single-figure score, before nightwatchman Jack Leach left a ball which cannoned into the top of off stump.
And they were lucky to only be four down at the close. England have their two best players at the crease in Root and Stokes. But It would be no surprise if the Ashes are done and dusted tomorrow with the tourists left playing solely for pride, trying to avoid an embarrassing 5-0 whitewash, in the last two Tests.
*18+ | BeGambleAware