Australia has solidified its position and made a draw the most likely outcome in the fourth Ashes Test after a safety-first approach saw the home side still have eight wickets in the bank at the end of a rain-shortened day four at the MCG.
At stumps, Australia was 2-103 — with David Warner not out on 40 off 140 balls and skipper Steve Smith unbeaten on 25 off 67 deliveries — still trailing England by 61 runs.
Geoff Lemon’s analysis
One game ago in Perth, it was England praying that rain would deliver a draw. In Melbourne, we had the less common incidence of Australia in a home fixture hoping that a bit of useful precipitation would ease their path to safety.
Not that the home side was exactly in a perilous position, but it was case of not much to gain, a lot to lose. When Australia came out to bat there was the outside chance of banging together a quick 350 by sometime the following morning, and giving England a couple of sessions to chase 200. But as soon as Bancroft and Khawaja fell with the deficit still at 99 runs, it was time for a more circumspect approach.
Batting out time has never really been David Warner’s strength. His approach is usually score or die. But he has been able to access a more sedate mode in the last year or two, and he turned that into a new kind of innings for him today.
With 40 off 140 balls by stumps, a strike rate of 28.57, Warner had never played an innings this long and this slow. Rank his career strike rates, and it sits amongst a list of single-figure dismissals. His only double-figure score at a slower rate was when he was trying to survive the evening session swing-a-thon at Adelaide a couple of weeks ago, when he made 14 off 60 balls at 23.33.
This Melbourne innings is already Warner’s 16th longest out of 130 career innings, in terms of balls faced. But those above it on the list tend to go at strike rates of more than 80 rather than under 30.
This time, Warner has recognised there is a job to do, and found a way to combat some challenging bowling, as well as any tendency to lose patience. The question is whether he will choose to resume on the fifth day with the same intent.
The home side came into day four on the back foot after Alastair Cook’s tremendous unbeaten knock of 244 put the tourists in a strong position.
Any hopes of pushing on for a triple century were dashed, however, as Pat Cummins bounced out James Anderson (0) with the first ball of the day, ending the England innings on 491.
Cummins ended with figures of 4-117, with Josh Hazlewood (3-95) and Nathan Lyon (3-109) also chiming in with valuable wickets in tough conditions for bowlers.
The Australians came out trailing by 164 runs, needing to bat long and hard to get towards a position of safety.
Warner and Cameron Bancroft had made a century stand in the first innings, but it was a tight start as the opening pair tried to avoid costly errors.
A pair of Bancroft boundaries off Broad in the fourth over livened up the crowd, then Warner edged Anderson through a gap in the field near gully to frustrate the tourists.
England captain Joe Root then brought Chris Woakes and debutant Tom Curran, ringing the changes in an attempt to steal a wicket.
There was controversy in the first session, as umpires Sundaram Ravi and Kumar Dharmasena spoke to England skipper Joe Root after a throw from Stuart Broad in the field bounced short of wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow.
Australia made it through to drinks at 0-44, with Bancroft on 21 and Warner on 23.
A few overs later Bancroft brought up the 50 partnership with a leg-side clip for four, but the following ball Woakes finally broke through, getting Bancroft to drag the ball onto his off-stump.
The Western Australian departed for 27, leaving Australia 1-51.
Usman Khawaja was next in, and he batted fairly defensively until Moeen Ali was brought on — in the spinner’s first over, Khawaja danced down the wicket and cracked him over long-off for six, followed by a cover drive for four two balls later.
Ali’s spell lasted just the one over, with Broad back on, but it was Anderson who made the next breakthrough, drawing enough movement off the seam to get Khawaja (11) to nick to the keeper, making it 0-65.
The home side was 0-70 at lunch, with Smith and Warner together.
Australia maintained a fairly cautious approach in the second session, with Warner in particular playing at a very unfamiliar scoring rate of 29 runs off his first 100 balls.
The lights were coming on with dark clouds overhead, and eventually a rain shower stopped play with Australia on 2-86.
Finally a back foot shot from Smith broke the drought with a single off Curran, and then Warner swung across the line to deposit the same bowler to the boundary.
The Australians trickled a few more runs, with a glorious cover drive from Smith off Woakes for four, but seven overs after the players’ return, the umpires called a halt again with rain falling at the MCG and the home side on 2-103.
At first it looked like a temporary delay, but the rain got heavier and with a series of heavy showers looming on the radar, the umpires put an end to the day’s play at 5.17pm AEDT.
Warner and Smith’s hard-fought partnership had reached 38 runs off nearly 23 overs. From the Australian perspective time had been taken off the clock, and the lack of further wickets had made it harder for England to secure victory in the fourth Test.
Barring a collapse, or some very imaginative batting on day five, a draw is the most likely outcome.