It’s perhaps a measure of the impressive awfulness of England’s tour that the Boxing Day Test, a clear highlight of the cricketing calendar, felt a low key affair. In Australia it certainly wasn’t, for pummelling the Poms is always going to have a certain appeal. But from the English perspective, finishing off Christmas Day with a bit of cricket into the early hours has always had a slightly magical quality to it. Of course, the true highlight of that in recent years was the 2010 match where England skittled the hosts for under 100 and finished the day well ahead and with all ten wickets intact, described at the time as being arguably the most one sided day of Test cricket in history. Hyperbole maybe, but a special day nonetheless.
Indeed, it was sufficiently good as a memory that the ECB also thought it worth mentioning in their build up, a reminder of those times when a 5-0 battering was an exceptional event that could be explained by being up against a truly great side bent on revenge rather than normal service.
This time around, fatalism about the likely outcome was exacerbated by Tom Harrison happily proclaiming that all was generally well and the small matter of a likely series hammering was just one insignificant fly in the ointment of the ECB masterplan. Seven consecutive away defeats are mere bagatelle in this reading of the game and while something is to be said for refusing to panic the clear suggestion that it doesn’t matter overly was astounding, both for what it said about the priorities of the ECB and also for the muted response from the media. It doesn’t take too much imagination to feel that such a response only a few years ago would have been ridiculed. And therein lies the biggest problem for English cricket: indifference.
In terms of the team, suggestions in the press had made about which deckchairs needed to be rearranged but as it turned out, only Tom Curran came in, a replacement for the clearly injured (it often needs highlighting with England that a bowler needs to be missing a limb before they’re considered definitely unfit) Craig Overton.
That meant that Moeen would play, despite being injured and woefully out of form, plus Broad would play, despite being injured and woefully out of form. To some extent a case can be made that throwing a young player to the lions in a series going dramatically wrong would be grossly unfair, but equally in the case of Mason Crane, it has to be wondered what the point of him being on the tour was. Putting aside Moeen’s performances for a second, he clearly isn’t fully fit, but England daren’t leave him out because of worries over the batting, while Broad’s ineffectiveness in a place where he has done well even in heavy defeat previously, may be at least partly to do with his health given rumours about knee problems.
Losing the toss on a proper flattie at the MCG wasn’t the ideal outcome, but England had won the previous three tosses without making best use of conditions before, so they could hardly complain. And in the first hour they were once again poor. Overall too short (surprise!) they varied that by offering up half volleys and width, allowing Warner to finally get going this series. It’s repeatedly said that the first ten overs with the Kookaburra ball are vital, and once again England wasted it. Once again too, they pulled it back somewhat subsequently. Broad in particular looked better than he has at any time this series, and offered up the rarity of beating the Warner bat.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have made too much difference, for this surface went beyond being a road, it was more of Bonneville Salt Flats proportions. England are rather good at drying teams up and restricting the scoring (without looking threatening) and from the second hour onwards for the rest of the day, that was their strategy, one that all bar Moeen seemed able to achieve.
A century for Warner had seemed a certainty, but England genuinely frustrated him, and on 99 Curran struck for his first Test wicket. Oh dear. There are several conflicting issues with wickets overturned for a no ball, firstly that sympathy may be limited for a bowler who can’t keep his foot behind the line (and this was the third England bowler in four years denied a maiden wicket by this means), but also the reluctance of umpires to call a no ball in live play means that a bowler may not know they are overstepping until it gets called when they take a wicket. It seems hard to believe that he hadn’t bowled one before and not been called because no wicket had been taken. Curran himself said he had been checking with the umpire on his foot position the previous ball, and it was merely down to putting in extra effort. Maybe so, but it is a general issue that could really do with being sorted out, it seems unfair on just about everyone, even if it is clearly still the primary responsibility of the bowler.
It didn’t overly cost England, for four runs later Warner was gone, caught behind off Anderson as England appeared to get just a little movement in the air and off the pitch. Ten overs later, and Khawaja was gone too, the plumbest of lbws to a Stuart Broad in his best spell of the series by far. It could have been even better too, Shaun Marsh being pinned on the crease first ball for one of those that the bowlers feel aggrieved when it isn’t given, while the batsmen believe they should get the benefit of the doubt. Handily, DRS backs up whichever call the umpire makes, but on such narrow margins can a day rest.
That was the end of England’s success. They continued to keep it tight, but Steve Smith eased his way to a comfortable, controlled half century, while Marsh too looked in little difficulty.
Given the placid pitch, 244-3 wasn’t that bad a day for England. They mostly bowled well enough, they certainly exerted reasonable control, and if they didn’t look especially penetrative, well, plus ca change. A couple more wickets would have made it a very good day for them, but instead they’ll return in the morning to the ominous sight of a well set Smith.
It’s always possible England will grab a few years quick wickets early on, but that has been the case for so much of the series, and not happened. Should Australia rack up the huge total that appears inevitable, England will be once again under extreme pressure. Its becoming hard to see it going any other way.