The Ashes: England failing to pass latest their Test in Melbourne – Chris Waters

GREAT sport is rarely a one-sided affair.

By Chris Waters
Monday, 27th December 2021, 10:13 pm
Australia's Scott Boland celebrates the wicket of England's Jack Leach during day two in Melbourne. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA
Australia's Scott Boland celebrates the wicket of England's Jack Leach during day two in Melbourne. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA

Think back to some of the best contests that you’ve seen and it’s a fair bet that they were more closely-fought than in walkover territory.

People want to see a good contest.

They want to see teams/players going toe-to-toe.

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SHINING LIGHT: England’s James Anderson on his way to a four-wicket haul against Australia during the third Ashes Test at Melbourne Cricket Ground. Picture:Jason O’Brien/PA

Granted, fans of the great tennis player Martina Navratilova, for instance, might have enjoyed watching her thrash some hapless opponent 6-1, 6-1 back in the day, but it’s hardly the stuff of compelling viewing – more an exercise in appreciating the talent on one side only.

It’s why this Ashes series has been so underwhelming.

England just haven’t turned up for significant periods.

At least there was a bit more fight from them yesterday, but it had the feel of too little, too late.

England's Zak Crawley after being dismissed during day two in Melbourne. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA

Inspired by James Anderson, who was in excellent form, England bowled well to restrict Australia to 267 after they had started day two of the Melbourne Test on 61-1 in reply to the tourists’ first innings total of 185.

However, a collapse to 22-4 in the final hour undid much of the good work, England closing on 31-4 – still 51 shy of making their opponents bat again as Australia seek the victory that would see them retain the Ashes with two Tests to play (Covid permitting).

Not for the first time, and surely not the last, it seemed to come down to whether Joe Root and Ben Stokes, the men in occupation at the crease, could mastermind the type of revival that only usually takes place at Headingley.

The omens are not favourable.

England have no form behind them and little confidence either.

Assuming that the virus stays away, they will surely lose this Test and quite possibly the series 5-0.

Such a result would probably flatter them.

Australia’s bowling in the final hour was electric as Mitchell Starc and Scott Boland took two wickets apiece, whipping up the crowd in the process to partisan fervour.

First, Starc got rid of Zak Crawley with a ball that slanted across him and took the edge on its way through to the wicketkeeper; then Dawid Malan was trapped leg-before on the crease for a golden duck.

The Yorkshire batsman reviewed the decision but it was umpire’s call as to whether the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps.

A batsman can consider himself a touch unfortunate in the circumstances and it has been an unhappy game for Malan, who made 14 in the first innings.

Haseeb Hameed’s poor tour continued, the Nottinghamshire batsman following scores of 25, 27, 6, 0 and 0 with one of 7, caught behind off debutant Boland, who followed up by bowling nightwatchman Jack Leach as he offered no shot.

One feels sorry for Hameed, who has struggled to back-up the promise that he showed at the start of his career.

A couple of half-centuries against India last summer have yet to translate themselves into good contributions Down Under.

The day began – half-an-hour late after the latest Covid scare saw four members of the England entourage/family group return positive tests – with the departure of Australia’s nighwatchman, Nathan Lyon, caught behind driving at Ollie Robinson.

Mark Wood found Marnus Labuschange’s edge – no mean feat - and Root did the rest at first slip, safely pouching for a single the man who recently displaced him at the top of the Test batting rankings.

Steve Smith played-on to Anderson, then Travis Head lost his head, playing a poor shot at Robinson to present Root with his second slip catch.

A third followed – this time off Anderson – to account for opener Marcus Harris, who rode his luck at times en route to the highest score of 76, his quest for a maiden Test century ongoing.

At that stage, Australia were 180-6, five runs behind, and England were clinging to hope and just about life.

But after Leach pinned Cameron Green on the back foot and Alex Carey drove loosely at Stokes and was caught behind, the hosts were lifted by some useful lower-order runs from captain Pat Cummins and Starc in the context of what has become a low-scoring game.

Cummins cracked 21 before slicing Anderson to backward-point, the Lancastrian finishing with 4-33 from his 23 overs, and Starc an undefeated 24.

Wood ended the innings when Boland pushed at a back-of-a-length delivery and edged to second slip, Australia’s first innings lead resting at 82.

Sadly for England, the closely-fought nature of the day hitherto did not continue along similar lines.

As Starc, Cummins and Boland charged in, it was like watching Martina Navratilova overwhelm some hapless opponent as England’s top-order was blown away.

Yes, it was tough. Yes, it was brutal. Yes, it was difficult for the England batsmen.

But that’s why – to coin the old phrase – they call it ‘Test’ cricket. It’s why these highly-paid sportsmen are playing for their country.

Ashes contests have been tough, indeed, since the rivalry began.

But this series has not been a contest when viewed in the round because England, quite honestly, are just not good enough.