England overcame a dire start to the day and a seemingly under-par first innings total to restore some of their shattered pride as they took nine Australian wickets on a pulsating Friday at the MCG.
Under glorious blue skies, another record crowd of 78,346 took in the action as England enjoyed their finest day of an otherwise miserable series.
Things were not looking so rosy for the dejected tourists when Mitchell Johnson, so often their tormentor, once again blew away their tail to leave England with a first innings total of just 255. With Tim Bresnan bounced out, Kevin Pietersen falling to a wild swipe and Stuart Broad trapped in front by another perfect sand-shoe crusher, Johnson was again on fire.
England’s last pair offered brief resistance, but when Monty Panesar shouldered arms to Nathan Lyon and was bowled, they had lost 4-29 in 55 minutes and their horrid series looked set to continue. Since the new ball the night before, Johnson had spectacular figures of 5-18.
On a track that looked good for batting, many England players had got themselves in before throwing wickets away to well set Australian plans. Pietersen, who had battled hard to survive Thursday and curbed his naturally expansive game, looked set on destruction come Friday, and sent Ryan Harris to the point fence first ball. A sizeable misjudgment saw him fall as he attempted to deposit a Johnson nip-backer into the members’ stand and was bowled. The tail soon followed.
So, as David Warner and Chris Rogers sidled out to bat at 11.30, England’s chances of a first innings lead appeared to have evaporated and Michael Clarke’s decision to field vindicated.
The picture six hours later, however, was a rather different one. England left the field with nine Australian wickets poached, more than they have managed in a single day all series, and their confidence restored. They had fielded well, they had bowled in packs and their plans had fallen into place. In short, they handed Australia a healthy dose of their own medicine by drying up the runs, creating pressure and striking when it most mattered.
None of Australia’s top six will wish to see their dismissals again. The innings started with an series of careless swipes, plays and misses and shot-a-ball madness from David Warner. There was more than just a hint of Sydney Thunder about the reckless nature of his knock and, ultimately, his dismissal too, as he skied a top edged from Jimmy Anderson to England’s new gloveman, Jonny Bairstow.
Shane Watson soon joined him, also falling meekly, wafting outside off to Ben Stokes. After a frenetic, confusing and often maddening morning, Australia reached lunch at 2-36.
The afternoon session was played at a more sedate pace. Michael Clarke had looked in fine fettle before the break but the runs dried up and the pressure told afterwards as he became the third batsman to fall when leaving the ball in the Test match. Anderson found just enough seam movement to beat the masterful Aussie skipper.
Chris Rogers, who had earlier copped a nasty blow to the helmet from Stuart Broad, and Steve Smith guided the hosts safely to tea on 3-96.
After the brief break, carnage ensued as the Australians suffered brain fades and England found the sort of ruthless fielding and bowling performances that won them three Ashes in a row. Smith, starved of runs by a tight fourth stump line, eventually nibbled and was snaffled well by Ian Bell, who replaced Graeme Swann at second slip.
Rogers, who had performed bravely to reach 61, was then uncharacteristically done by a Tim Bresnan slower ball that found its way into the hands of a running Pietersen at mid off, and George Bailey, who never looked comfortable, was dismissed on review, feathering an edge through to Bairstow. In the blink of an eye, Australia were 6-122.
Johnson and Brad Haddin, who counter-punched as brilliantly as he has done all series, restored some calm before the latter leathered it to Anderson at midwicket off Bresnan. Just two overs earlier, the same man had dropped a regulation chance at cover.
Harris and Peter Siddle soon followed and, despite Haddin surviving a speculative review when given out lbw off Panesar, Australia reached the close at 9-164, still in arrears by 91. Australia had lost 6-68 in the final session.
England looked a different team in the field. They reduced Australia to a plodding run rate of 2.33 with some much-improved performances. Bairstow was vocal with his cheer leading and tidy with his keeping, while the team’s celebrations were rapturous. Cheered on by a buoyant Barmy Army, the four seam bowlers plugged away impressively, with Broad and Anderson the pick, sharing six of the nine to fall. Their attack looked suited to the slower track, one on which it is easy to survive, but difficult to score, as both teams have shown.
From the dressing rooms:
Anderson: “We didn’t start as well as we wanted to – the aim was to get 300 on the board and we didn’t do that. But we knew it was a hard wicket to score on and if we were disciplined we could take wickets and we did. We just stuck to our plans – there are no demons in the pitch. We just tried to bang out our areas and be as boring as possible and wait for the breakthroughs.”
Rogers: “We’ve had one bad day. It had to happen, so it’s up to us to rebound”
Good day for: The Barmy Army. As Pietersen acknowledged before this match, this likely bunch have spent a lot of money and travelled many a mile to support England, and finally their team gave them a worthy performance. They sung loudly, soaked up the sun and generally had a whale of a time.
Bad day for: George Bailey. The cheeky Tasmanian’s 19-ball duck was a torturous affair. First innings runs would have sealed his slot in the side but, as England tested his patience, he simply could not get it off the square.
Stat of the day: When Haddin smashed Ben Stokes into the Southern Stand, it was the 52nd six of the series. That is the most in an Ashes series and the most in any five match series. It was also the 37th by an Australian, equalling Pakistan’s record for the most by a single team. Appropriately, Haddin has more maximums (17) than any other player this series.
The Moment: Amid England’s fightback, it was easy to forget another scintillating performance from Johnson to start the day. He produced three beauties, one at the head, one at the stumps and one at the toes to complete his “five-for”. With Pietersen intent on attack, the sight of his bails flying was a special one for any Aussie up early enough to see it.
What Saturday holds: Once more, England’s bowlers plugged away gallantly and are within touching distance of a first-innings lead. Now it is the batsmen’s turn to stand up.