England’s Ashes hopes hang by a thread as their lack of quality and concentration saw them crumble in the bat on day one of the third Ashes Test.
The tourists turned up for the Boxing Day Test determined to launch a fightback at the MCG following convincing defeats in the first two Tests but any hopes of a win in Melbourne appear to have gone up in smoke.
A festive crowd of 57,100 saw them bowled out for just 185, outclassed by Pat Cummins in the morning session before self-inflicted wounds from senior men Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler floored them in the afternoon.
Australia closed on 61-1, with England listless and lethargic in the field before James Anderson got the better of David Warner late in the day.
Root, who top-scored with 50 but was furious with his own loose dismissal, had demanded a response from his side after events in Brisbane and Adelaide, but was handed a tired shrug of a performance that effectively ended hopes of regaining the urn.
His latest setback will only throw up more questions about his status as captain but Steve Harmison admits Root is the only player that can lead this England team.
Harmison told talkSPORT: “You can talk all you want about Joe Root and say ‘should be he captain, should he not be captain?’ Those results say everything.
“If you look at him and Chris Silverwood and you question their positions, I think you’re short-sighted. There are a lot of other things going wrong in red ball cricket for England that needs to be addressed and reset.
“Joe Root’s the only man that can captain this country because he’s the only one that actually warrants a place in the side other than Ben Stokes – but he’s been out for six months.
“Stokes would be the only other option but giving him the captaincy would be the last thing we need because we’ve already asked too much of him in the first place.
“Root is the man to do it as long as he wants to do it and you’ll never hear me say anything different.”
Harmison continued: “We made four changes but unfortunately it’s the ones who stayed in the side who are the ones who will be wanting to have a look at themselves.
“The batting in the middle of the afternoon was just abject, the decision making was poor and three dismissals were embarrassing.”
After a half-hour delay for rain Australia seized the chance to bowl in overcast conditions, a opportunity Root had spurned at The Gabba. Cummins was particularly keen to get ball in hand and soon showed why.
Having watched Haseeb Hameed leave every ball of Mitchell Starc’s first over, the Australia captain forced him to play with two balls that zipped in off the pitch then snapped up his outside edge with one that held its line. Alex Carey swallowed the catch and Hameed bagged the dubious distinction of England’s 50th Test duck of 2021.
The axing of Rory Burns had not solved the team’s opening issues and his replacement, Zak Crawley, did little to help matters. Before fencing Cummins to gully for 12 he had two heart-in-the-mouth moments – a big swipe that connected with fresh air and a leading edge that could have landed anywhere.
With those two gone, the onus was on Root and Dawid Malan to produce their third big stand of the series. It started well, with Malan a calming presence in the middle and Root scoring fluently from the moment he flicked his second ball for four on a sluggish outfield.
Once they saw off Cummins things began to look gentler, as the rest of the attack failed to match his threat or stem Root’s accumulation. With lunch approaching and a 48-run stand closing the gap between the sides, Cummins returned to wrestle back control.
Slanting the ball across Malan (14) on an awkward line, he took the outside edge and left England deflated heading into the break on 61-3. Root was now carrying an all-too familiar burden, ticking along to a comfortable half-century in 76 balls before paying the price for a first lapse in concentration.
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Waving airily at an innocuous Starc delivery he nicked through to Carey, who made no mistake. Root thumped his bat in anger as he stomped off the field, his dreams of a first century in Australia taking another painful dent.
His conversion quandary between 50 and 100 – he has now failed to double up nine times Down Under and three times on this trip – is a problem the rest of his teammates would love to have.
Stokes (25) landed one blow of note when he heaved Nathan Lyon for six but continued a run of meagre returns when he tried to conjure a shot that was never on against fellow all-rounder Cameron Green. Leaning back and shaping to uppercut the 6ft 6in seamer, he instead carved straight to the man at backward point.
Buttler made a bad situation worse in the last over before tea, charging Lyon and holing out in the most flippant way imaginable. After fighting for 207 balls on the final day in Adelaide, he used up just 11 here.
Australia swept up the last four wickets for 57 in the evening, Jonny Bairstow offering a flicker of resilience on his recall but even he could not save face. Knocked to the floor by Starc after gloving to gully, he was gone for 35.
Lyon took care of Jack Leach and Ollie Robinson (22), but the biggest cheer was reserved for hometown debutant Scott Boland, who had Mark Wood lbw.
A clatter of wickets after the change over might have made the match a shootout, but England’s new ball pairing of Anderson and Robinson could not recreate Cummins’ earlier efforts. There was a distinct lack of buzz from the fielders as Warner picked up five boundaries – the same as England’s top five combined.
Wood injected some life into proceedings as he topped 93mph but by the time Anderson made the breakthrough – Warner fencing to gully for 38 – they had leaked 57 runs in 14 overs. Stokes bloodied Marcus Harris’ finger just before stumps, but it was England who had endured the real pain.