Tim Paine keeping up to the stumps for Jackson Bird and Mitchell Marsh, Steven Smith posting himself as a solitary slip, Nathan Lyon querying the shape and condition of the ball with the umpires. It was that sort of barren day in the field for Australia, as an ill Pat Cummins shared his time between the bowling crease and the change room toilets.
If the pitch and the 35C heat contributed to these scenes at the MCG, then so did the absence of Mitchell Starc due to a bruised heel. With Cummins less than 100%, Smith lacked the high pace with which to pressure England in general and Alastair Cook in particular, allowing the erstwhile out of touch opener to reassert his value to Joe Root’s team. Whenever Cummins was off the field, he was replaced by a Thomson; regrettably for Smith it was Blake, rather than Jeff.
“I was pretty proud of Pat,” Nathan Lyon said while outlining the extent of the fast bowler’s difficulties. “You go through moments where you don’t feel very well in Test cricket but the way he stuck at it and was able to put in that massive effort for us was quite pleasing to see. He’s a world-class bowler, to see him play the way he’s played, hats off to him. At tea time he slept pretty well the whole 18 minutes of it. Hopefully he’ll see the doctor tonight, get some fluid on board and have a good night’s sleep so he can come back tomorrow morning.”
There was a hint of dead-rubber syndrome about things too. Smith dropped Cook on 66 when slightly misjudging the speed of a chance sliced his way off Marsh’s bowling – something it would have been hard to imagine seeing in the first three Tests. Smith’s generosity then extended to taking the final over of the day himself, then serving up a full toss and a couple of short ones to allow Cook to glide to his century with two balls of the day to spare.
Australia had to some degree created these problems for themselves with some inattentive batting on the second morning. The slowness of the pitch required the patience and application shown by Cook, but instead the hosts exhibited an eagerness to get after the bowling that resulted in a trio of chop-ons from Smith, Mitchell Marsh and Tim Paine amid the loss of 7 for 67.
“Steve’s in some pretty good form, he’s the No. 1 batter in the world,” Lyon said. “To get out the way he got out I think he was pretty disappointed, but cricket’s a funny game and you can find ways to get out. No doubt he’ll go back and look at his game as always and he’ll try to get better each and every day like he does.”
But it was a measure of how much Starc’s injury affected the balance of Australia’s bowling attack that by the close a first-innings tally of 327 was looking decidedly inadequate against an England side that had only once gone past that mark all series.
“You’ve got two world-class batters on a pretty flat wicket,” Lyon said. “There’s not much spin wise, there’s definitely no seam movement and the ball’s not really swinging that much as well. The favour is in the batter’s corner but you’ve got to give credit where it’s due. I was pretty proud of the bowlers’ effort, the way they stuck at it there, and hopefully we’ll sit back tonight, recover well and make sure we come back fresh in the morning and have a couple of new plans for Joe and Alastair.”
Having been put through a quite unrelenting day in the field, Australia’s bowlers were happy to be blunt in their assessment of the batting display that had led to it. On ABC Radio, Josh Hazlewood agreed that the batting display on the second morning had been “complacent”, and added his own assessment that it had been “lazy”. Lyon, meanwhile, acknowledged that batsmen and bowlers alike had failed to stick to the crease for long enough.
“Yeah it’s fair to say that,” Lyon said when asked whether the batsmen had lacked ruthlessness. “But then you’ve got world-class bowlers in James Anderson and Stuart Broad bowling extremely well with a reversing ball, so credit to them as well. This Test match is a roller coaster, it’s an arm wrestle, so I know what we have to do, we have to come back, freshen up in the morning, make sure we’ve got our own plans.
“When we get our chance with the bat in the second dig our batters have got to make sure we go big and really set the game up. We missed out in our first innings, especially the tail order, we pride ourselves on our batting and we let the team down today as a batting group and we’ll be better for that experience. But our prep was exceptional leading into Christmas and the first day. There’s never a dead rubber if you ask me.”
Had he been fit to play, Starc would have offered Smith speed, reverse swing and a level of variety not available to the six right-arm over bowlers tried. But the fact that this Ashes series is already decided, and that there is a four-Test tour of South Africa looming in February and March, served also to underline why his absence was a necessary evil for Australia.
To be at their best, which they so far have not been in Melbourne, they need Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood at their speediest and most hostile. Otherwise there will be more days like this one, where the Australians look just like any other team struggling for inspiration and wickets on a docile Test-match deck.