By Michael Stafford-Jones
- Improved bowling from Stuart Broad inspires England to bowl Australia out for 327
- Brilliant unbeaten 244 from Alastair Cook silences critics and steers England to 491
- Lifeless pitch makes victory virtually impossible as Steve Smith scores another hundred
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – England are frustrated by a lacklustre pitch during draw after superb displays from Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad put them in an ideal position to push for victory.
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Cook and Broad’s careers are far from over
The spring was back in Stuart Broad’s step as he ran in to bowl in front of a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Boxing Day. From the first ball he delivered right through to the one that thudded into Jackson Bird’s pads to give him his fourth wicket, he was back to a level somewhere near his best.
Before Bird, Broad dismissed Usman Khawaja for 17, Shaun Marsh for 61 and the previously dangerous Pat Cummins for just four. It was kind of performance England have been waiting for him to produce all tour, and it is very disappointing that he was unable to produce it until now.
As it is, Broad’s past glories earned him a stay of execution after a run of poor displays that would certainly have cost an inexperienced bowler his place in the team. And the Nottinghamshire seamer justified England’s faith at the MCG by playing the way his country expects him to.
Broad also helped his and the team’s cause by scoring an entertaining 56 off 63 balls during a century stand with Alastair Cook. While the pace bowler was at the crease, Cook passed 200 as he, like his partner had done with the ball, delivered the perfect answer to those critics and doubters who had wondered aloud whether he still had what it takes to perform at the highest level.
It was a truly wondrous innings from Cook, who unfurled an uncharacteristically classical collection of straight drives along with a smattering of the type of cuts and pulls we are used to seeing from him. The Essex opener’s footwork was assured, his timing exquisite and his powers of concentration as impressive as ever.
Cook’s 244 not out broke several records. It was his highest score in Australia and the highest by any overseas batsman Down Under; it was his fifth double-hundred (only Wally Hammond has scored more for England) and his second of 2017; and it was the first time an Englishman had carried his bat since Michael Atherton against New Zealand in 1997 and the highest score by any batsman carrying his bat in Test cricket.
During Cook’s innings, he passed the run totals of Mahela Jayawardene, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Brian Lara to become the sixth-highest run scorer in Test history with 11,956. This display proves he still has the ability to climb even higher on that list, if he has the hunger to do so. And that is really the only question left for the legendary opener to answer: how much longer does he want to carry on for?
Whatever people said about his run of poor form prior to this match at the MCG, Cook has earned the right to make that decision himself. There is no Englishman in county cricket worthy of taking his place at the top of the innings. And even if the Essex man is thinking of calling it a day soon, surely he will at least score the 1,423 runs he needs to go past Ricky Ponting into second place on the all-time Test run-scorers list.
Moeen Ali must be dropped for Crane
Two of England’s three worst-performing cricketers in Ashes 2017-18 (Cook and Broad) stepped up in Melbourne and repaired the damage to their reputations. The third, Moeen Ali, did not. Under pressure for his place, the off-spinning all-rounder conceded 89 runs in 25.2 wicketless overs in the match and scored a frantic 20 before falling to Nathan Lyon for the sixth time in seven innings.
Nothing Moeen has done so far in the series is sufficient to justify his selection for the Fifth and final Test in Sydney on 4th January. He has consistently failed to take wickets and his control has not been good enough to restrict Australia’s ability to score quickly. His highest score with the bat was 40 at Brisbane and his innings have got progressively worse since then to leave him with a series average of 19.42.
That average is not much higher than those of Broad and Chris Woakes, so he cannot be trusted to contribute with the bat if he is selected at Sydney. For that reason, England should be bold and select Mason Crane to play at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). While they will not be able to expect anything from the Hampshire leg-spinner with the bat, he is an attacking bowler with experience of Australian conditions from his time in grade and Sheffield Shield cricket.
Crane is yet to really impress in English first-class cricket (he took 16 wickets at 44.69 in 7 County Championship games in summer 2017) but he is only 20. Importantly, he spins the ball more than most of his countrymen, and that is a characteristic which is likely to help him take more wickets at international level than others could.
Before the Adelaide Test, Trevor Bayliss told ESPN Cricinfo: “I wouldn’t have any problems at all playing Crane. He’s young, but he’s feisty and likes to get into the contest.”
It is time for England’s coach to back up his words with his selections.
Lifeless pitches make victory very hard to achieve
As reported by ESPN Cricinfo, Joe Root said that the MCG pitch was ‘as flat a wicket as you’ll ever see’ and Steve Smith was equally unimpressed.
The Australian captain said: “I think it just needs to do something. It hasn’t changed over five days and I’d say if we were playing for the next couple of days it probably wouldn’t change at all either. It’s got to find a way to have some pace and bounce, or take some spin.
“Obviously we saw a reasonable amount of reverse swing throughout the game but the ball just gets so soft so quickly because the surface is quite hard itself. (When) it gets soft, it doesn’t carry through and it’s really difficult to get people out.”
Cook’s double hundred, Smith’s second-innings hundred and David Warner’s scores of 103 and 86 were all undeniably impressive knocks but, when you consider how placid the pitch was, any of the batsmen on either side could conceivably have made a big score on it. There were no demons in the wicket and no sign of any uneven bounce or cracks. It was simply a case of the batsmen who made the most runs taking advantage of the easy conditions because they are some of the best players on either team.
It should not be so easy to avoid getting out in a Test match. The five-day format is supposed to be the ultimate challenge for any cricketer and the MCG pitch is rightly under investigation for failing to produce a victory for either team. It also reduced the amount of entertainment on offer for the ever-passionate Melbourne crowd, and this is a shame for the showpiece match of The Ashes, which is probably the best bi-lateral cricket series in the world.
The Fifth and final Test of Ashes 2017-18 begins in Sydney at 11.30 GMT on Wednesday 3rd January.
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