Boxing Day at the MCG is one of Australia’s most iconic days of sport and for the first time in 10 years, through a quirk of the schedule rather than England’s fortunes, its Ashes Test remains a live contest. Just.
In 2010 the tourists were a confident, well-drilled side under Andrew Strauss hunting retention of the urn, a mission they completed handsomely. By contrast, their modern equivalents will walk out on in front of 70,000 spectators needing to prove the lessons they always speak of after defeat have been learned.
These in part revolve around a discipline outside off stump, the lack of which afflicted Australia back then. When bowled out for 98 by Jimmy Anderson, Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett, all 10 wickets were caught between wicketkeeper and gully. Melbourne’s mighty coliseum was practically deserted by the time England reached 157 for no loss by stumps.
Expecting a repeat this year requires the optimism of Dr Pangloss but Joe Root’s men, fresh from the dressing room lock-in staged by their head coach, Chris Silverwood, after their slump to 2-0, can really only improve. Nearly every decision taken so far has backfired, be it selection or strategy, while non-negotiables such as catching or no-balls have been costly. For Root, these have exacerbated the situation.
“There was a lot of frustration [after Adelaide],” said Root. “Purely because of the basic mistakes that we’ve been making. And we’ve done it twice in a row. And, as I said to the group, I don’t think they’re that much better than us in these conditions.
“The scoreline would suggest they’re absolutely a far better team than us and I don’t think they are. If we perform anywhere like we can, we’ll put them in an uncomfortable position and find ourselves in a very different situation leaving this ground.”
Which players can achieve this was still up in the air three days out from the toss. The expectation is that Zak Crawley will resume his Test career, a call based on a belief that the 6ft 5in right-hander will be suited to Australian conditions rather than any tangible form on a tour without state games. Rory Burns, whose first-ball dismissal in Brisbane was war-gamed by the coaching staff before the series yet still proved defining, may make way.
If Haseeb Hameed is backed over Burns as expected, despite little more by way of output from the top of the order, it may be a reflection of the approach espoused during the truth session rather than a sign of looking to the future. After all, another late call comes at No 6, a choice between a struggling star of the future in Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow, who would boomerang back for a 79th Test cap.
Then there is the seam attack, publicly criticised by Root for not bowling full enough in Adelaide. It was a move which led Ricky Ponting to question the captain’s authority and, more recently, Steve Harmison to claim he would be “waiting at the top of the stairs” had Michael Vaughan said the same back in the day.
Given time to reflect, Root tried to explain he simply wanted bowled and lbw to be in the equation a touch more often. And not least against Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith, two insatiable batting tragics who happily leave all day and do so with a flourish which, however ridiculous it looks, makes this a win for them rather than a stalemate.
“I think what I was trying to say was as soon as we [went full to Labuschagne and Smith], we showed how dangerous we could be and how many problems we caused them,” said Root. “And we know those two players in particular, [if you] dismiss them for not many runs it will cause all sorts of panic. We saw it this time last year when Australia lost to India, it has a massive effect on the rest of the batting group.”
A moribund drop-in pitch at the MCG has been the source of much local angst in recent times, with the Ashes Test here four years ago, when Alastair Cook ground out an unbeaten 244 in a match of just 24 wickets, arguably the nadir. So much so, in fact, a half-decent surface for a Sheffield Shield match earlier this season even became front page news in the Melbourne newspaper the Age.
India’s dominant victory 12 months ago makes for an interesting pointer, however, with the dual spin of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja claiming eight of the 20 Australian wickets to fall. It may be, that along with the pace of Mark Wood, Jack Leach returns to England’s attack. Along with Chris Woakes, which out of Anderson or Stuart Broad makes way may hint at who shared Harmison’s view.
Australia meanwhile welcome back Pat Cummins as captain after the elite honesty that followed his close contact with a positive Covid case, while the struggling opener Marcus Harris has been backed for one more chance by Justin Langer. Despite a surprise triumph in the T20 World Cup, Australia’s head coach began this series under pressure for his position after a year of grumbling from inside the dressing room about an apparently suffocating style.
Yet on Thursday, Langer was speaking openly about his desire to secure a contract renewal next year. Instead it his English equivalent, Silverwood, who goes into Boxing Day needing his methods to translate into immediate results.