Eleven years on from the sprinkler came the shower. Joe Root called it gut-wrenching after his dream of regaining the Ashes evaporated in the space of 12 days, not that much stomach for the fight was in evidence from England’s batters during a third and final morning in Melbourne that saw Australia surge to an unassailable 3-0 lead.
Gunned down for 68 in the space of 27.4 overs through a remarkably cheap six-wicket haul from a 32-year-old debutant in Scott Boland, with the giant all-rounder Cameron Green inflicting the coup de grace by pegging back Jimmy Anderson’s off stump, England had registered their lowest total on Australian soil since 1904. With this they had somehow conspired to lose a Test match in which their opponents stuck just 276 on the board by an innings and 14 runs. After passing Covid tests overnight, England’s players failed the cricketing examination that followed.
This was a heady day for Australian cricket as bright sunshine poured into the MCG and baked a green surface that had witnessed 30 wickets in just seven sessions. Not since the Andrew Strauss-led England team of 2010/11 – sprinkler dance et al – had a side retained the Ashes at this iconic ground. Pat Cummins soaked up his first series as Test captain, the Tim Paine text scandal now firmly in the rearview mirror, while the country had a new hero in Boland, just the second Indigenous Australian men’s Test cricketer in history.
Back in 2018, a few years after discovering family links to the Gulidjan tribe, Boland was part of an Indigenous Australian squad that toured England to retrace the steps of their pioneering forebears in 1868. Here on his home ground in Victoria, in the afterglow of an Ashes victory, Boland was presented with the Mullagh Medal that is named after the original trip’s most celebrated player, Johnny Mullagh. Since the last Australian summer the award goes to the best on show at the famous Boxing Day Test.
Figures of six for seven in four overs, four of which followed Mitchell Starc’s early castling of Ben Stokes with a beauty, made for a frankly astonishing performance by a newcomer. Marcus Harris could point to his 76 in a bowler-friendly contest being the highest score and eight runs better than England’s lamentable second dig, but he will doubtless have enjoyed seeing Boland, a state teammate, enjoying this unexpected moment in the sun.
English eyes could only look on in envy at the scenes, even if a good number had remained in the dressing room. A two-year plan to peak in Australia, devised by the head coach, Chris Silverwood, his captain, Root, performance director Mo Bobat and the director of men’s cricket, Ashley Giles, had turned to dust through the double whammy of a systemic failure to produce Test-quality batters over the past decade and a heavy dose of management overthink on tour. The pandemic has not helped, clearly, but neither did obsessing about Australia when the world’s two best teams, New Zealand and India, were in town. All four positions, plus Tom Harrison at the top, will be debated while the team tries to stave off a 5-0 whitewash.
Having tried the carrot after Brisbane, the stick after Adelaide, and made four changes for Melbourne that had little by way of impact, there is little to suggest a change of fortunes is likely. Over the course of three Test matches – lost by nine wickets, 275 runs and now an innings – England have been second best in all departments. And though the bowlers have plugged away despite being poorly selected as regards the first two surfaces, and the catching has been shoddy, most alarming has been the batting. Instead of acclimatising and improving on tour, they have got worse.
According to CricViz their average of 19 runs per wicket so far in the series is the lowest witnessed since 1890. Root, who fell 88 runs short of breaking the Test record for a calendar year, has ultimately been an island of class in a sea of mediocrity for too long and, perhaps dragged down by the burden of this, is still without a century in an away Ashes Test. When he edged Boland to slip on 28 amid the final collapse, his groin once again aching from another blow to the box delivery by Cummins, he couldn’t even bring himself to deliver the punch of the bat that has tended to follow his dismissals on tour.
This was a lively pitch in Melbourne, no question, and both Cummins and Mitchell Starc are two seamers of the highest quality. In the case of Cummins, who set the tone with three piercing dismissals on the first morning, seldom has a quick looked as dangerous as he did during that raucous second evening only to walk off with a none-fer. And though prone to the odd quiet spell, Starc has been a scourge in the main, that left-arm angle, swing and nip – plus impressive physical resilience – making for a lethal cocktail.
Yet rewind to Boxing Day and, with instructions to improve their discipline after a dressing room inquest in Adelaide, three senior players in Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler gifted their wickets during the collapse to 185 all out despite being among the most vocal when the players passed round the truth serum. Come the second innings, when a deficit of 82 runs resulted from Anderson’s latest display of age-defying mastery, they were collectively too shellshocked to muster a fightback. A couple of marginal lbw calls went against Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow but few grumbles could be had.
Who in the domestic game would have fared better? It’s a question Silverwood declined to engage with properly during his post-match interview, insisting it was not the time for talk about the wider system. The truth is there probably isn’t anyone who could have changed the outcome. Factor in the advancing years of Anderson and Stuart Broad, doubts over Jofra Archer’s ability to play the longest format, the absence of a Test-class spinner and a generation drawn to the low-scrutiny, well-paid life of the global T20 circuit, and it’s hard not to predict a tough few years ahead.
It was the Australian cricket writer, Gideon Haigh, an enjoyable neighbour in the press box over the past three days, who once said that Test teams are a bit like the stars in the sky, with the light that is seen on any given night in fact the result of something which occurred roughly a decade ago. Looking at English cricket’s husbandry of the red-ball format ever since the sprinkler dance first appeared on the MCG outfield 11 years ago, this record ninth Test defeat in 2021 and an Ashes dream crushed at the earliest opportunity should probably come as no surprise.