English opening batsman Alastair Cook has broken his shackles in vintage fashion, bringing up a century in the final over of the day to steer the tourists into a strong position after day two of the fourth Ashes Test at the MCG.
At stumps, Cook was unbeaten on 104 alongside Joe Root on 49 not out with England at 2-192, 135runs behind Australia’s first-innings total.
Geoff Lemon’s analysis
Throughout three Tests in this Ashes series, Australia has surprised us by not batting like Australia. Long known as a team of profligate stroke-makers, excused with the mantra of “playing their natural game” every time a massive collapse filled with slogs came along, this team seemed to have digested Steve Smith’s new demand that collapses had to end.
Of course, much of this has relied on Smith himself, who batted through two supremely long innings in Brisbane and Perth to help set up Australia’s straight-sets victory in the first and third Tests. But it also involved the support of Shaun Marsh in Brisbane, before he went it alone in the second Test in Adelaide. Mitchell Marsh was Smith’s key partner in Perth. David Warner and Usman Khawaja have contributed patient runs in multiple innings, while Tim Paine and Pat Cummins have done similarly down the order.
Finally, in Melbourne, Australia’s restraint broke. The slow pace and low bounce of the MCG pitch created the opportunities for England, but Australia’s batsmen still donated wickets. Three short balls, three cross-bat shots, three times playing the ball onto the stumps via the bottom edge.
You would think that Smith playing on for 76 would be enough warning. The Aussie captain had reached that score 27 times before this innings, and gone on to a century on 22 of those occasions. But this time he cut himself short, by cutting a short ball. Up on his toes to ride the bounce, he was too high for it, only getting a thick under edge into the woodwork.
But neither Mitchell Marsh nor Paine learned from that lesson, the former also aiming a cut shot that would have been perfect in Perth, but under-edged the lower Melbourne bounce. Then Australia’s wicketkeeper essayed a pull shot to a ball that probably wasn’t short enough to begin with, but even less so given the indifferent bounce.
Three deflections into the stumps within a session, and the score of 500 that looked likely for Australia after the first day subsided to a bit over 300 just after the next lunch break. Apparently lessons can be unlearned as quickly as they can be taken on.
The left-hander had struggled to make his mark at the top of the England order throughout the series and has only one century to his name in the past 12 months, but day two saw a return to the form that has brought him more Test runs than any other Englishman.
In a partnership the tourists had dearly needed before things got so woefully out of hand this series, England’s two best batsmen finally fired, with Cook joining captain Root for a century partnership to put England in a rare position of strength.
Root was also solid, finishing on the verge of just his third half century of the series.
Already missing Mitchell Starc, the Australian pace attack was further blunted when Pat Cummins left the field with an upset stomach. He returned but was far from his usual menacing self.
Sweating profusely, the righthander toiled hard for little reward as England set about chasing down Australia’s first-innings total of 327.
English openers Mark Stoneman (15) and Cook weathered the new-ball bowling of Josh Hazlewood (1-39) and Jackson Bird (0-38) early on, but a switch to the spin of Nathan Lyon (1-44) brought Stoneman undone.
The lefthander spooned a drive straight back to Lyon and the spinner made no mistake with the one-handed chance.
The only other English wicket to fall on day two was James Vince, who looked settled until Hazlewood got one to nip back into the righthander’s pads on 17. He accepted the LBW decision without challenge, even though replays suggested his bat tickled the ball on the way through.
But Cook kicked on, pouncing on anything short of a length and looking as comfortable as he has this season, hitting 15 boundaries in his knock.
However, having cruised to his half century, the former skipper got the wobbles briefly in the final session.
The first scare came at the non-striker’s end when he was on 59 as a Root straight drive crashed into the stumps having narrowly flown past Bird’s outstretched right foot. Cook looked to have regained his ground, but only narrowly.
He then survived an LBW shout off the bowling of Mitchell Marsh before nicking a ball to first slip in the same over. Steve Smith bobbled the attempt several times before the ball dropped to the MCG grass.
The following over brought another LBW appeal, this time off Bird, but again the Australians’ pleas were waved off.
From there Cook regained his focus, teaming with Root to put on a 112-run stand for the third wicket.
Smith wicket sparks collapse
The first session belonged to England’s bowlers as the tourists claimed five scalps before lunch to halt whatever momentum Steve Smith and his charges were hoping to gather.
Smith failed to add much to his overnight score, and the Australian captain was the first to fall on day two as he bottom-edged Tom Curran (1-65) onto his stumps.
It was Curran’s first wicket in Test cricket, after the English debutant was denied the honour when he dismissed David Warner on 99 on day one, only to be called for overstepping.
Mitchell Marsh didn’t last much longer, dismissed in similar fashion to Smith when he chopped Chris Woakes (2-72) onto his stumps for just 9.
Shaun Marsh (61) and Tim Paine (24) looked to stem the wicket spree, but Marsh fell shortly after reaching his half-century when he was trapped in front of his stumps by Stuart Broad (4-51).