Another century from Steve Smith saw Australia survive day five of the fourth Ashes Test and dash England’s hopes of a face-saving win in a series that left the visitors humbled by three straight losses.
When the game was called off, Australia had reached 4-263 – a lead of 99 over England, as the flat MCG deck, which has drawn criticism from many quarters, defeated all attempts to achieve a result.
Given the conditions and the much-criticised slow pitch, this was England’s best opportunity to get a win in the series, but skipper Smith produced a careful, focused, unbeaten innings of 102 – his twenty-third Test ton – to once again prove himself the master of opposition batting.
Mitchell Marsh was with him at the end, his knock of 29 off 166 deliveries keeping England well away from the vulnerable tail
The loss of more than a session to rain on day four had made a draw appear almost inevitable, but the tourists nevertheless came out seeking an early breakthrough.
They were met with the stonewall stand of Smith and David Warner, who each batted solidly for just 12 runs in the first half hour of play.
By drinks they had moved on to 2-138, within 26 runs of England, with Warner finally beginning to open up and taking eight runs off one over from debutant Tom Curran.
A rain delay kept the players off the field for less than 15 minutes, and Warner appeared locked in for back-to-back centuries until a lapse of concentration saw him fall to the part-time spin of English captain Joe Root.
Having shown a level head for 226 balls, Warner had his restraint tested once too often when Root served up a full delivery outside off stump.
The ball flew high into the Melbourne sky only for James Vince to take an easy catch at cover with Warner on 86.
Adelaide century-maker Shaun Marsh contributed just four before he was was removed by a sharp catch to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow off the bowling of Stuart Broad.
The wicket, on the last ball before lunch, fuelled the tourists’ slim hopes of forcing a result even as rain threatened to rob the final day of more overs.
The Australians came out after lunch to resume on 4-178, their focus firmly on staying at the crease as the clock ran down and Melbourne’s fickle weather lived up to its reputation.
The final session was pretty much a procession, as Smith made his way to his third century of the series.
He reached the landmark with a single through point off Malan. His century came off 259 balls with only six fours — a statistic that highlights how discipline and patience trumped his normal attacking approach.
Twenty minutes later, with Australia merely playing out time, the two captains shook hands and the game was over.
The English bowlers can’t be faulted for effort, but their task was hampered, and hopes hobbled, by a wicket so lifeless that Cricket Victoria chief executive Tony Dodemaide believes it might be time to dig up the much-maligned MCG wicket and start again.
The flat pitch has drawn a barrage of criticism, with many declaring it unworthy of a Boxing Day Ashes Test match.
The Victoria Bushrangers have played out three Sheffield Shield draws in three games at their home ground this season, with players from all sides dismayed at how little the wicket offers.
“We have been working with the curators to try different things to get variation later in the game,” Dodemaide told ABC Grandstand.”We need to talk about it more.
“If these are the original pitches that came into the ground, they’re probably nearly 15 years old now, and it might be that the life span of a particular drop-in
pitch might be shorter than what we saw for the pitches that were all-year round
While Victorians wonder what to do with their inert pitch, the Ashes action now moves to Sydney, where selectors have named left-arm spinner Ashton Agar to the fifth Test’s 14-man squad.
Mitchell Starc, who will be racing the clock to prove his fitness for the series finale, and Peter Handscomb, who was dropped for the third Test, have retained their spots.
Australia’s XI for the dead rubber is far from settled. Starc remains bothered by his bruised heel but is confident he will be right to play.
Agar is no certainty to play his first Test on home soil but selectors will likely add the 24-year-old to their XI if the SCG pitch is spin friendly.
Agar, who scored 98 batting at No.11 during a memorable Test debut at Trent Bridge in 2013, suffered a broken finger during Australia’s limited-overs tour of India in September.
He returned from the injury earlier this month during a Sheffield Shield clash at the MCG and has since played three Big Bash League fixtures for Perth.
After batting first drop during Perth’s last-start win over Melbourne Renegades, he has spoken of his desire to become a genuine allrounder.
Mitch Marsh has indicated he is ready to step up and bowl more overs of his medium pace in Sydney should Agar replace fast bowler Jackson Bird in the side.
-with AAP and ABC