Fine work by the England bowlers was quickly undone by the batters as hopes of salvaging the third Test slipped away at the MCG as Australia close on the series win.
Australia were bowled out for 267 as Jimmy Anderson took four wickets, leaving the hosts with an 82-run lead after both sides had batted. It was not an insurmountable difference but when Zak Crawley and Dawid Malan were dismissed in successive balls to reduce England to seven for two the gap in quality was highlighted once more. They would make it to 31 for four at the end of the day as Haseeb Hameed and nightwatch Jack Leach were removed in the penultimate over.
England’s bowlers worked hard to make up for their batters’ first innings failings. Anderson showed off his class, stemming the flow of runs and dismissing Steve Smith and Marcus Harris to record figures of three for 24 from 19 overs, with strong support from Mark Wood and two breakthroughs for Ollie Robinson.
The day’s play had earlier been plunged into doubt by the presence of coronavirus in the England camp.
England would have been more than happy with their morning’s work, taking three for 70 and picking off some of their most painfully familiar foes without sustaining any real damage. With 15 runs added to the overnight total of 61 for one, nightwatch Nathan Lyon was first to go courtesy of a wild and woolly drive at Robinson.
That brought Marnus Labuschagne to the crease, fresh from unseating England captain Joe Root as the world’s number one batter. His chances of holding the top spot took a dent when he fell for one, nicking his first ball from Wood – a rapid welcomer in a tricky channel – straight to Root.
Smith is another frequent tormentor of English attacks, averaging over 100 in the previous two Ashes series, but he also fell cheaply for 16. He offered up a tough chance on five when an inside edge into his pad would not stick in the glove of the diving Jos Buttler and England must have feared the worst.
But Anderson was in the midst of a wonderfully controlled spell that saw him allow one run in six overs and he continued asking the hard questions until Smith dragged on and flicked his own bails.
Harris never seemed fully secure at the crease, playing and missing with remarkable regularity either side of recording his first half-century at this level since January 2019. England lost momentum during an extended spell from spinner Jack Leach, during which he bowled a negative line into the pads with the support of a defensive field.
Harris and Travis Head formed a stand of 60 but showed signs of uncertainty after Leach tried some more attacking angles. Head survived a top-edged sweep into space, while Head failed to make contact on the charge only for Buttler to let an admittedly tricky stumping slip past his gloves.
Robinson, who looked low on gas at times, finally got England going again when he drew a rash swing of the bat from Head (27) and fed Root his second catch of the day. Harris become number three, gone for strangely unconvincing 76, when he found Anderson too testing and nudged a thick edge through to the skipper at first slip.
England continued clawing back ground at the start of the evening session, with Leach picking up Green and Stokes dismissing Carey. Anderson removed Cummins, leaving debutant Scott Boland was last man out when he edged Wood to Zak Crawley at second slip, leaving Australia 267 all out.
Cummins served up a fierce and brilliant start with the new ball for Australia but it was Starc who drew first blood, snaring Crawley’s outside edge for five.
Malan has been a reassuring presence at number three in this series but he was thumped above the knee roll by Starc’s very next ball and given lbw after a thunderous appeal.
The umpire’s finger went up after a few moments consideration and when Malan signalled for a referral it seemed as though he had half a chance. Replays gave him hope but ball-tracking marginally upheld the on-field verdict.
The Spin: sign up and get our weekly cricket email.Root emerged for the hat-trick ball as a crowd of almost 43,000 bellowed their support, with Starc fizzing one just past the captain’s edge as the stands celebrated a nick that had not occurred.
At the other end, Hameed never looked comfortable at the crease, frequently edging the ball, which eventually cost his wicket as he nicked Boland in his first over the of the innings behind to Carey. Leach was sent out as nightwatch following the demise of Hameed to face the hostile bowling and crowd but was dismissed at the second time of asking after leaving one on off stump to leave England in a familiar situation of staring defeat in the face.