“Greetings from dark and cold -9 degree Berlin,” begins Richard Williams. “Have tried to explain cricket to my German guests but to be honest they have quickly given up asking about the rules and are more intrigued as to why I would subject myself to staying up all night to watch an inevitable defeat. I’ve got nothing… At least you’re getting paid for this.”
I think their line of enquiry is the more interesting of the two conversations. Cricket is an inherently silly game, one that would never be invented today. However, why we remain fixated by it, and waste hours arguing over its eccentricities (especially in support of a hapless side), can reveal much about the human condition.
WICKET! Root c Carey b Starc 50 (England 82-4)
You know the script by now. Root passes 50 but fails to make a ton. This time he chases a Starc length delivery angling across him into Carey’s gloves. He needn’t have played at it. Australia cock-a-hoop.
33rd over: England 82-4 (Stokes 4)
50 to Joe Root
32nd over: England 82-3 (Root 50, Stokes 4) Beauty from Boland to herald the start of his eighth over, beating Root on the outside with a delivery that kissed the deck and snuck from its expected trajectory by a fraction. The bowler loses his line soon afterwards though, and Root milks the single down to fine-leg for his 53rd 50 in 112 Tests. This one has been industrious and effortless so far, in the face of some excellent bowling, and no shortage of failure at the non-striker’s end.
31st over: England 81-3 (Root 49, Stokes 4) Starc, bowling in a sleeveless sweater, over-pitches to Stokes who leans into an off drive that again has to be run for three – the outfield still feeling the effects of the morning drizzle. Starc continues to search for line and length on a frustrating day for the big quick, leaking a couple of deliveries down the leg side and scrunching his face up in puzzlement at his absence of rhythm.
30th over: England 77-3 (Root 48, Stokes 1) Boland’s seventh over begins with a short and wide loosener and Root is ruthless, carving it behind point for four. He makes it back-to-back boundaries with a controlled thick-edge along the ground through the cordon. It’s almost three in the over, but a square drive to a full delivery holds up in the slow outfield and he has to settle for two. Typical Root, almost 50, at a handy strike-rate, with the minimum of fuss.
29th over: England 67-3 (Root 38, Stokes 1) Now thee’s a sight, the lesser spotted Mitchell Starc is handed the ball for the first time since the fifth over, and he begins his spell replacing Cummins with his two best deliveries of the day – straight to Root, just short of a good length. He then over-pitches and Root is onto it in a flash, driving for a handsome three. Stokes again finds himself fending with a gloved hand at ball that gets big on him.
This tweet does not reflect well on the English system.
28th over: England 64-3 (Root 35, Stokes 1) Boland has been selected to complement his skipper after lunch, which means Mitchell Starc, who bowled only three poor overs with the new ball, remains on ice. Stokes, who hinted, unwisely, at walking at Cummins, does follow through against Boland, and is immediately rapped on the gloves from a length delivery. Back to the drawing board. Boland then gifts Stokes a single to get off the mark into the on-side. Root meanwhile continues to rotate the strike and accumulate steadily.
27th over: England 61-3 (Root 33, Stokes 0) Cummins completes the 27th over that was curtailed after three deliveries and the wicket of Malan. He sends down three more balls to Stokes, the second of which was a ripsnorter that lifted off a length and whistled past the startled batter.
And we’re back after lunch…
Lunch: England 60-3
That was two hours of high-class nip-and-tuck Test cricket on the opening morning at the MCG. But it could all be distilled into two words: Pat Cummins. The Australian skipper won the toss then ripped out England’s top three before lunch to guide his side into a strong position at the interval.
WICKET! Malan c Warner b Cummins 14 (England 60-3)
Cummins is really pushing hard in this spell and again he finds an extra ounce of energy to make the ball lift and seam off a length, beating an unnecessary fish from Root. The follow-up jags back in towards Root’s personal pipe but he manages to squirt his way off strike with a single. And then Cummins is rewarded. Masterful bowling. The same line and length to Malan as the previous over, this time the edge carries straight to Warner at first slip. Massive moment as the players walk off for lunch. Pat Cummins, take a bow.
27th over: England 60-3 (Root 32)
26th over: England 60-2 (Malan 14, Root 32) Lyon moves around the wicket to Root to cut off the release single through midwicket. The batter responds by dropping deep in his crease and milking a run through gully. Lunch is imminent.
25th over: England 59-2 (Malan 14, Root 31) More excellent Test cricket. Full and wide and fast from Cummins for three deliveries, then a bumper at Root’s helmet that the England skipper pulls cleanly for a single. Cummins then draws a healthy outside edge but Malan played with a dead bat from the crease and the ball died long before it reached second slip. When Cummins bowls there’s always something happening.
24th over: England 58-2 (Malan 14, Root 30) A lovely over of cat-and-mouse between Lyon and Root. The field is set to entice Root into going over the top, the ball is offered up outside off, but the England skipper is not biting. Eventually he exchanges leg-side nurdles with Malan to keep England rolling. Root has skipped to 30 relatively drama-free and the best batting of the day remains ahead of him.
23rd over: England 55-2 (Malan 15, Root 28) Almost everything has been full this morning, so when Cummins bends his back and drops one short Malan isn’t quick to sway out of the way. The leftie keeps his composure, continues to play languidly from the crease, and earns a couple with a checked drive through the covers. Not for the first time this series, this partnership has stabilised England’s innings and kept Australia honest.
22nd over: England 53-2 (Malan 11, Root 28) Root works Lyon away for a single to move up to third on the all-time list for runs in a calendar year. He remains a chance to knock off Viv Richards and then Mohammad Yousuf before the Test is over. Malan copies his skipper, getting down to the non-striker’s end and denying Lyon the opportunity to bed in.
Tom Newman has emailed in suggesting Scott Boland, Australia’s debutant, resembles Benedict Cumberbatch.
21st over: England 51-2 (Malan 10, Root 27) Green did well in his holding role (four overs 0/6) but captain Cummins has decided he needs to break this vital England partnership. He begins his second spell over-pitching and Root elegantly strokes the ball down the ground for three. Malan then follows suit, although with less elegance, but it’s not how, it’s how many, right? Three more singles keep the scoreboard moving in a veritable avalanche of runs for England.
20th over: England 42-2 (Malan 6, Root 22) Malan is getting bogged down out there (six from 50), and he does not look happy facing Lyon. The bowler definitely has the upper hand, dictating whether the batter moves forward or back. He even gets away with a long-hop that Malan can only carve to point. Good signs for Australia with Lyon in the mix so early.
19th over: England 42-2 (Malan 6, Root 22) Green is straight to Root, too straight, according to Ricky Ponting. But the batsman will not have appreciated another blow to his midriff. The deflection earned a leg-bye, preceding a handsome drive from Malan for one – courtesy of some superb point fielding from Lyon, then a neatly clipped off drive for a couple from Root. This is tight nip-and-tuck Test cricket, but there has been nothing to demonstrate this was an automatic bowl-first surface. Australia have been disciplined but only Cummins has looked inspired.
“What, please, is a heavy ball?” asks Ross McGillivray, not unreasonably. “I thought they all weighed pretty much the same, as stipulated the the laws of the game.” Try this excellent recent piece from Cricinfo, for an answer.
18th over: England 38-2 (Malan 5, Root 20) Nathan Lyon is introduced early to probe the outside edge of Malan’s bat. There’s bounce on offer (as usual for a bowler who generates so much overspin) and some turn too, albeit slow off the grassy surface. Malan sees off a maiden from deep in his crease.
17th over: England 38-2 (Malan 5, Root 20) Green finally gets a look at Root, and it’s an even contest with the bowler’s heavy balls being resisted by the batter hanging on his back foot. A neat backfoot drive square adds a couple to the total.
16th over: England 36-2 (Malan 5, Root 18) Boland continues to blow in, putting heart and soul into every delivery. Malan is reed-like, allowing each gust to blow through him while he remains patient.
Stephen Herzenberg is making the case for Liam Livingstone to open the batting, and become England’s frontline spinner: “… with Crawley (or Bairstow). And Liam should also be the spinner so they don’t need Leach/Bess. His bowling figures (FC, T20, less so list A) compare favourably with Moeen Ali’s and are comparable with Adil Rashid’s.”
What I like about an approach like that is England seem continually to reject selections that may provide some impetus at the top of the order. Instead of “taking the shine off the new ball” why not find the next Trescothick and adopt a David Warner approach to put the pressure on the new ball bowlers? The Jason Roy experiment didn’t work, but surely a side so powerful in white-ball cricket can find a dasher that can come off one in every three or four knocks, and sell the message of such a that trade off?
15th over: England 36-2 (Malan 5, Root 18) A second over on the trot from Green to Malan, this one ending with a single off the hip. It was an over dominated by the bowler though, including a cross-seamer that held its line from around the wicket to beat the outside edge. There is something Flintoff 2005 about Green. Great physique, high arm, heavy ball, ability to bowl from around the wicket to left-hand batters. Serious all-round talent.
14th over: England 35-2 (Malan 4, Root 18) Boland does indeed replace Cummins, and his first delivery after drinks is edged along the ground through gully for four by Joe Root. The next five balls are a splendid tussle between bowler and batter with Root eager to get off strike and Boland varying his length to deny his foe any control of timing. The ball really does seem to hit the bat hard from Boland’s deliveries, despite the mid-130kph speed gun.
“It’ll be interesting to see how England react to being under the cosh in Australia, seeing as they’ve never been in this position before. Eh? EH??” Thanks Simon McMahon.
13th over: England 31-2 (Malan 4, Root 14) Boland is off – presumably to swap ends and replace Cummins – which means Cameron Green, Joe Root’s tormenter in chief this series, is into the attack. Green has Malan on strike to begin with though, and batter and bowler are happy to play out a maiden of rangefinders.
12th over: England 31-2 (Malan 4, Root 14) The England skipper looks to have his eye in now and his hands are feet are moving in sync, getting in line with the ball and always probing for runs. A couple arrive through the on-side during a high-class duel with his Australian counterpart, one that ends with the ball arcing away from the bat and into the wicketkeeper’s gloves. The Aussie skipper’s new-ball spell stands at 2-14 from six overs. Outstanding.
“Is there any point in thinking that England might make a match of it,” emails Trevor Tutu.
11th over: England 29-2 (Malan 4, Root 12) Another couple to Root at the start of Boland’s third over, but he doesn’t look totally at ease against the debutant. After rotating strike Malan finds the third-man boundary with that trademark angled thick-edge of his down through the gully region.
“Whatever your opinion on Joe Root the captain, whenever he goes out to bat, he is always, always, smiling. The pressure he must be feeling, yet somehow he can compartmentalise and keep on smiling – bravo Joe.” Hear hear Sam Johnson.
10th over: England 22-2 (Malan 0, Root 9) More brilliance from Cummins, bruising that perfect line and length repeatedly, squaring-up Root and almost inducing an edge. Again Root replies by calmly rotating the strike, this time working three wide of midwicket.
The G can do that. The acoustics are very echoey, tinny, and loud. If it sounds off right now, just wait until after tea when the cheap seats are lubricated.
9th over: England 19-2 (Malan 0, Root 6) Boland strays onto Root’s pads so the No 2 ranked batter in the world clips the ball away to the square-leg fence for the first boundary of the day. Lovely follow-up from the Victorian though, getting some movement off a length to beat Root’s forward prod twice in a row. On both occasions the ball strikes Root near his Adelaide Oval unmentionables. And a third! This time repelled by a combination of splice and glove. Excellent bowling. Cummins honours the endeavour with a short-leg. Root responds with a clear head, rotating the strike with a nudge into the covers.
8th over: England 14-2 (Malan 0, Root 1) Root’s off the mark first ball with some tip and run. Not for the first time this series he and Malan are in the middle much earlier than they would have preferred. If they fail to dovetail for an hour or so, this Test could be all-but over by lunch.
“Jono, Here we go again,” begins David Griffiths. “It’s always a delicate choice, whether to dare to hope, or whether to just enjoy wallowing in the self-loathing & recriminations of yet another England Ashes defeat. For me, it all started going pear-shaped when TV cameras showed Root sprinting up the tunnel, presumably to get his pads on in time to bat. (Probably, an easy canter would have just about sufficed).”
David, if you haven’t already, engage self-loathing mode. Check back after lunch for further instructions.
WICKET! Crawley c Green b Cummins 12 (England 13-2)
Pat Cummins is brilliant. He’s been full all morning but just bent his back a fraction more early in his fourth over and the extra zip and bounce squares Crawley up, finds the shoulder of the bat, and Green does the rest at point. Crawley looked in decent nick but such is the lot of the opening bat that occasionally the new ball bowler can make something happen.
7th over: England 13-1 (Crawley 12, Malan 0) Starc has been hooked after three disappointing overs, which means a huge moment for Scott Boland, the Victorian coming on to bowl his first over in Test cricket, and at his home ground too. For those unfamiliar, Boland is a strong, barrel-chested seam bowler who sends down a very heavy ball. Not dissimilar to peak Tim Bresnan. He’s been taking Sheffield Shield wickets for fun in recent seasons. He quickly settles into a nice fifth-stump line to Crawley, but he’s yet to nail his length, although he’s erring on the side of full, which is encouraging. A tip-and-run single keeps the scoreboard moving.
6th over: England 12-1 (Crawley 11, Malan 0) More runs to Crawley, this time driving a couple through the covers, then clipping three off his pads, profiting from Cummins over-pitching in search of the fuller length this surface demands. There are no demons in this pitch, nor is there an abundance of movement in the air. As tends to be the case here, the toss should not prove pivotal.
5th over: England 7-1 (Crawley 6, Malan 0) Starc still hasn’t adjusted his line and length. He’s getting no swing into the right-handed batters and he’s wasting the new ball giving Crawley plenty of sighters. But on the final delivery of the over Crawley gets a healthy slice of luck, aiming to tuck away a rare delivery on his pads into the leg-side, but instead getting a leading edge that flies harmlessly over cover.
“Hi Jonathan,” hi Des Platt. “Apart from last year’s lockdown it’s the first year for years that my local pub hasn’t been open on Christmas night and I’ve usually enjoyed watching the first couple of hours of the Melbourne Test whoever Australia’s opponents are. Many years I would’ve been disappointed not to be able to watch but I have to say that this year I really can’t be bothered. I don’t really care whether England win or not anymore. Apart from the scrambled thinking by the coach and captain, I really find it difficult to support any cause the ECB might support. They will probably commission a special report directed to find it’s all the fault of stick-in-the-mud county members and recommend abolishing the counties and playing all franchise pub cricket. Sorry to be so gloomy but I really can’t see it any other way.”
4th over: England 4-1 (Crawley 3, Malan 0) Cummins is bowling beautifully, moving the ball off the seam at serious pace, befuddling Dawid Malan. There’s a hint of shape into the left-handed batter from the right-arm over bowler too, which makes the job of gauging line and length even more perilous.
3rd over: England 4-1 (Crawley 3, Malan 0) Starc has not looked anywhere near as dangerous as his skipper, continuing to bowl both too short and too wide with the new ball. There are ‘oohs’ when Crawley throws his hands at a wide one – and misses – but there’s no rhythm at the moment from the big leftie.
Replays of Hameed’s dismissal do not bode well for his Test future – trapped on the crease to a stock new ball delivery, pushing forward with his hands away from his body after taking a big step backwards.
2nd over: England 4-1 (Crawley 3, Malan 0) Cummins completes his successful first over by ripping a jaffa just past the shoulder of Malan’s bat. He’s already just about justified his decision at the toss.