Joe Root was under fire before play but the England captain was able to end Boxing Day with his head held high after the tourists showed the fight he had wanted.
Root had urged his men to believe there was still plenty to play for despite the Ashes already being conceded – and his fast bowlers responded on a challenging drop-in deck amid criticism of team selection.
At stumps, Australia were 3-244, with England hoping the second new ball – taken belatedly 12 minutes before stumps – can help to prevent Steve Smith (65 not out) from celebrating what would be his third century of the campaign.
After a rugged morning session for the tourists, where they conceded 102 runs off 28 overs, they rebuilt after lunch when spearhead James Anderson provided a canny piece of bowling from around the wicket to end David Warner’s innings on 103. Stuart Broad would later put the spotlight on Usman Khawaja by having him caught behind. Broad had been under pressure after his wicketless return in Perth where his pace and aggression had been down but he responded well.
“I don’t think we started very well. We didn’t adjust to the conditions of the pitch quick enough. When you bowl at someone like Warner who is one of the best players in the world on a pitch like that, if you don’t bowl to your best, he is going to hurt you,” Anderson said.
“We regrouped at lunch, decided it was a really slow pitch, dry and slow, so we thought (put) catchers in front and try and bowl straight.”
Anderson later took aim at the state of the deck, declaring it was not conducive for “exciting” cricket.
“You would think the 90,000 that turned up today don’t want to see 3-244. People want to see entertaining cricket, especially in an iconic Test match like the Boxing Day Test match at the MCG. People want to see exciting cricket.”
Debutant Tom Curran was impressive, for he was able to nudge 138 km/h with his effort ball, and attempted to unsettle his opponents with variation. He also endured a gut-wrenching moment when he had Warner caught off a mistimed bunt to mid-on when on 99, only for replays to show he had over-stepped the crease.
It did prove to be a rallying moment for the tourists, coming after former captain Michael Vaughan before play had questioned team selection, while Root had been under fire for his defensive field placings in the morning session after he had lost the toss for the first time.
Vaughan, a commentator on Britain’s BT Sports, declared there was too “safe” an attitude with selection and Root should have dropped Broad.
“I do think he’s missed a trick this week. England have lost nine out of 13 away from home over the last two years. They have gone pretty much with the same team. I would have changed it up,” he said.
“You get to that stage as a captain and as a leader where you have to send a message to the group. I personally wouldn’t have played Stuart Broad this week. As a leader that would have been my message to the group.
“He hasn’t bowled well enough in 2017 and he’s averaging over 40. That was an opportunity missed for Joe to send a message to the group. No one is safe but, at the moment in this England side, it is quite a safe environment.”
Vaughan also criticised the decision to retain spinning all-rounder Moeen Ali, who has been outbowled through the series by counterpart Nathan Lyon and offered little on Boxing Day.
“They have a spinner who is averaging 100 here and averages 60 in two years away from home and 32 with the bat. Yet he gets another opportunity. You have Mason Crane waiting in the wings. You have Mark Wood waiting in the wings,” he said.
“I would have changed it up a little bit more and that would have been my message as a captain to the team. I would have sent a shiver through the group with a couple of selection changes.”
Root’s defensive field placings were questioned by several Test greats, including former Australian captain Michael Clarke, who said they had been more “run-saving” than attacking.
Root employed men in the deep for Warner and Cameron Bancroft, the latter particularly questionable because he struggled for form in the morning session. He had only 19 to lunch, whereas Warner had thumped an unbeaten 83. Former Australian all-rounder Tom Moody made his feelings clear on social media when a deep point was set for Warner.
“Deep cover point after 12 overs day 1 ??? really?” he said.
The tourists did rally after lunch and were able to make Warner sweat for more than 30 minutes in the 90s, with that pressure culminating in a mistimed shot when one short of three figures. However, Warner was saved by the video replay, and would celebrate his century in typical style with a jubilant leap. He would fall to a clever piece of bowling from Anderson, whose seaming delivery induced a thin edge from a defensive bunt.
There would be only 43 runs scored in the middle session as the tourists were able to choke their typically free-wheeling opponents with tight bowling on a deck that had slowed, while Root’s field placings appeared to make more sense. When Khawaja pushed forward and was caught behind after tea, England had turned the day into a grind and were back in the contest.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.