Australia quicks keep things tight to keep visitors to 226/6 at close on the first day
A world-record cricket crowd descended at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Thursday (December 26), as England’s short-term recoveries never became longer-term consolidation after regular setbacks throughout the day. Sent in by Michael Clarke – Alastair Cook said he would have chosen to bat in any case – England posted a modest 226 for 6 at stumps in the face of determined Australian bowling, on a day that started slowly but built to a Mitchell Johnson flourish at the close.
The official attendance was 91,092, bettering the 90,801 recorded on the second day of the deciding Test of the classic 1960-61 series against West Indies. This is neither a live Test, nor part of a series that will be remembered as a great contest, but it is a measure of how deeply this Australian comeback has fired public imagination that a dead rubber could inspire such enthusiasm in Victoria’s capital city.
While most of the day’s play could not have been described as thrilling, the Australian contingent would have been content with the steady fall of wickets and a scoring rate kept slow by English caution and tight work from the Australian pacers.
The sour notes for Australia were a seemingly inevitable muscle injury that forced Shane Watson off the field while bowling, and that for the first time this series Australia didn’t take their catches. Watson returned to field at slip but moved gingerly with what was a groin complaint. Kevin Pietersen, meanwhile, was England’s mainstay after twice being dropped off Ryan Harris.
He will continue on Friday on 67 not out with Tim Bresnan for company, after the England No. 8 survived a late Johnson onslaught to reach the safety of stumps with a solitary run to his name.
Had someone else been able to stay with Pietersen, the luck that went his way could be playing a much more important part in this match. Under heavily overcast conditions, things looked dicey for England on being sent in, but while Australia’s bowlers did gain some assistance from a pitch with a bit of moisture, it was by no means unplayable. Cook and Michael Carberry saw their way to 48 runs, but Peter Siddle hit the right line once too often, and Cook nicked a ball angled across him to Clarke at slip.
The last over before lunch, Carberry survived a review for a Harris delivery that came at him around the wicket, only for him to shoulder arms and watch it crash into his pad. The review said the ball was only clipping his off bail, so the not-out decision stood, but it was an omen. After lunch, just after having cut a couple of fours to look more comfortable, Watson got Carberry with one of the balls of the summer. It started wide, swung in, then seamed further, luring the batsman into another leave and then crashed unopposed into his stumps.
It became England’s pattern for the day. All up Carberry had been out there for 34 overs. Cook had lasted nearly 17 overs, Joe Root batted through 25, Ian Bell for 30. But none of them were able to go on to a big score. Carberry fell for 38 runs. Root edged a Harris outswinger for 24. Bell’s stand with Pietersen only yielded 67 runs. While all of these held off Australia until after tea, the English cause wasn’t hugely advanced.
Pietersen’s patience was as much a feature of his innings as his luck. It took him 13 balls to get off the mark, with a clouted pull for four, then that remained his only scoring shot until a single off the 39th ball he faced. Having ground his way to a painful seven from 43 balls, a moment fell his way that may see his series salvaged. Once again Pietersen stuck his head into Harris’s short-ball trap, but while Nathan Coulter-Nile, the substitute fieldsman, took the top-edged catch at fine leg, he couldn’t stop himself stepping over the boundary. Instead of being out, Pietersen had hit the chanciest of sixes.
Tea followed soon after, and by the time Harris nibbled one off the seam to take Bell’s outside edge, Pietersen had 40 from 108 balls, with one four and that Coulter-Nile six. His second stroke of fortune came in Harris’ next over, when he once more swatted a ball off his pads to midwicket. George Bailey had juggled the catch four times in Adelaide, but this one was flying past him and got beyond his third lunge.
It was a hectic passage of play: Pietersen clubbed the next ball barely over mid on for four, but either side of that delivery was down on his haunches, spitting and looking like he might vomit. Having by now tried to mimic three previous dismissals from this series, he recovered sufficiently to continue and to raise his half-century. It had taken him over three hours.
Harris had been the pick of the bowlers. Aside from his wickets, his first 11 overs went for 12 runs. But it’s been hard to keep Johnson out of this series, and late in the day seems to be his witching hour. After Ben Stokes drove Nathan Lyon for a four and a six in the 80th over, the new ball was taken, and Johnson’s third ball took Stokes’s edge en route to Watson at slip.
Jonny Bairstow came to the crease, and in the 85th over the crowd roared back into the match. Having already copped a few short balls, Bairstow threw a hook to top edge six over the wicketkeeper. The next ball he forced two through cover. The next he was clean bowled with a touch of swing. Johnson smashed the next into Bresnan’s pad – not out. As a green-and-gold sombrero blew toward the pitch, Chris Rogers delighted the crowd by putting it atop his baggy green. Johnson fired a bouncer over Bresnan. George Bailey turned between deliveries to gee up the crowd.
Every match has had these dramatic moments. That top-edged six was the 51st of the series, equalling the series record from 2005 with most of two Tests left to get ahead. The third-last over had Bresnan fending away from his face just wide of leg gully. The last had the crowd booing Pietersen’s time-wasting gardening. He may have held off one more over at the end of this first day, but Johnson and Harris will be ready to go again on the second, and England will have to think of something other than go-slow if they’re to produce a decent total here. If anyone can push that total on with greater speed, it’s Pietersen. Now that he’s remembered how to play ugly, tomorrow may be the day he returns to the majestic.