Alastair Cook wound the clock back to post a potentially career-saving century on a day Australia’s over-reliance on Steve Smith was exposed, leaving the hosts in a grim struggle in the fourth Test.
The second day crowd of 67,882 came to the MCG expecting another ton from the Australian skipper only to see the home side crumble with the bat as England enjoyed one of its best days on what has been a miserable campaign.
Australia had been well placed to post another gargantuan first innings total but its hopes of inflicting a third straight whitewash on home soil now hang in the balance.
The visitors were 2/192 at stumps on the second day after Australia suffered a dramatic batting collapse in which it lost 7/67 to be all out for 327.
The hosts were not helped by a stomach bug to an exhausted Pat Cummins, who came off the field several times and was so tired he slept during the tea break. Down his pace due to his illness, Cummins still shouldered his share of the load as temperatures soared into the 30s.
“I was pretty proud of Pat. You go through moments when you don’t feel well in Test cricket,” Nathan Lyon said.
“The way he stuck at it and put in a massive effort was quite pleasing to see. Hats off to him for the effort he’s put in for us today.”
Things would have been worse had James Vince challenged a leg before wicket verdict with replays showing the England No.3 had feathered one onto his pad.
On a benign pitch, there is no reason why Cook and his successor Joe Root, who was unbeaten on 49, cannot bat well into the third day and leave Australia in the unfamiliar position of having to bat for survival in the second half of the match.
Opportunities have been few and far between for the Australian attack on a pitch where bowlers are relying primarily on batsman error for their wickets.
They are already ruing the life given to Cook, who was reprieved on 66 when Smith failed to hold on to a difficult chance at first slip off Mitchell Marsh
Cook capitalised on Smith’s gamble to bring himself on for the final over, peeling off the seven runs he needed to reach triple figures with two balls to spare.
England’s leading run-scorer, who posted his first ton in six matches and had gone 10 innings without passing 50, had been under fire from former greats Kevin Pietersen and Mitchell Johnson who believed he should retire.
“Testament to the bloke he is, he’s a calm character, not someone who gets fazed,” Stuart Broad said.
“He went through so much stuff about his captaincy, I’m sure a bit of stick about his batting is not going to bother him too much.
“Cooky has had periods in his career where he might not score the runs he wants then scores a big hundred. He doesn’t deal in little hundreds, he seems to go big.”
The turning point of the day came when Smith chopped on to his stumps on 76 with a 23rd Test ton within reach.
Although Australia’s top six is more stable now than a year ago, its fortunes still ride heavily on Smith’s back. Almost half the team’s runs have come while the skipper has been at the crease.
Smith was lured into a rare mistake by debutant Tom Curran, who a day earlier was cruelly denied what would have been his first Test wicket by a matter of millimetres.
The crowd was stunned when Smith chopped a short and wide ball on to his stumps on 76. He was one of three Australian batsman, along with Mitchell Marsh and Tim Paine, to lose his wicket trying to force the issue off the back foot on a pitch lacking pace.
Once Shaun Marsh departed for 61, one of four wickets to a much-improved Broad, there was little resistance from Australia’s tail.
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