Day three at the MCG and England’s embattled opener refuses to throw away England’s advantage in a brilliant exhibition of concentration and strokeplay.
Walking to the ground. Tense. But hopeful. England fans dreading that yesterday was yet another false dawn, dreaming that it was the start of something special.
England’s set batsmen Cook and Root gave them a steady start, but then the skipper, as has been his wont, did exactly what the large English contingent didn’t want, and threw it away with a cheap dismissal, pulling Cummins to give Nathan Lyon an easy catch. The England captain was visibly annoyed, hurling his gloves to the turf as he walked off. He has now converted just five of his last 27 scores of 50 into hundreds. Were England about to throw it away again?
Malan again looked more solid than we had dared hope at the start of the series but then with the new ball’s second delivery, Hazlewood hit him on the pads and got the decision. As with James Vince, after discussion, the batsmen decided not to review. As with James Vince, TV replays showed an inside edge.
The whole of cricket orthodoxy, that you absolutely know when you hit it, has been turned on its head with the two bizarre non-reviews of Vince and Malan. There were plenty of old pros saying there was not one moment in their careers when they hit it and didn’t realise, but honestly, how would they know? Without the all-seeing Snicko and Hotspot, maybe they were edging it all the time and just didn’t notice. Malan’s dismissal came at 246, the same score as at Brisbane when 246-4 became 303 all out. Were England about to throw it away again?
But Cook was still there this time…. Imperturbable, carrying on carrying on, he added 30 in the morning session, largely untroubled, and occasionally unfurling another straight drive, inclusive of exaggerated follow-through. The two centurions have both played that shot, one of the most gorgeous in the game, with aplomb and given the lie to the claim that this is a pitch you can’t play your shots on.
The influence of England Lions’ batting consultant Gary Palmer, for whom hitting straight down the ground is the cornerstone of batting, could perhaps be detected in Cook’s play. Look out for more on this in Wisden Cricket Monthly issue 3, out January 17.
With Cummins still appearing out of sorts, Hazlewood and Lyon were the main threats, the tension ramping up whenever they came on, but earlier in the series the apprehension was there whoever the bowler. Now, at the mention of Jackson Bird or Mitch Marsh by the stadium announcer, it was more about whether England could capitalise on the more friendly offerings. Australia had become England.
Bairstow – belligerent, bristling – got moving with some textbook cover drives, and added some slightly frenetic impetus to the side until he was caught behind off Nathan Lyon trying to forcing through the off-side. Were England about to throw it away again?
Moeen Ali was welcomed with a Hazlewood bumper that he headbutted to the fine leg boundary. He then launched Lyon straight, crossing the boundary by a matter of inches with Cummins just failing to cling on. English nerves shredded. You could understand his mindset, admire the calculated risks, but slapping one to cover shortly after to end a frenzied innings of 20 in 14 balls was hugely frustrating. More so as English fans love him so much and know exactly what he’s capable of. Lyon has now got Moeen, a cracking player of spin bowling (don’t forget his 380 runs at 42 against India last winter) six times from seven this series.
Woakes combined with Cook to take England into the lead (the first time they had led on first innings away from home since Rajkot in November last year) but he was bounced out by Cummins and Curran followed soon after with England just 46 ahead. Broad and Anderson were the last men. Were England about to throw it away again?
Of course they weren’t.
Broad, as self-evidently petrified as any Test batsman has ever been, was magnificently brave, even as his back foot edged ever further towards the keeper. Swats, flashes and ramps delighted a rejuvenated Barmy Army and infuriated Australia in equal measure. A century stand in just 18 overs, Broad’s contribution a 63-ball 56, built England’s lead to an imposing 146. His controversial dismissal, a brilliant grab by Khawaja millimetres from the ground, brought comedy boos from the England fans but in reality, they were happy to see the game moving on. What a few days Broad has had.
And all the time Alastair Cook had been going serenely about his business. In the afternoon session, when Cook added 39, Australia had tried a few funky fields. Smith, who had spent some time off the field ill, dropped a tough chance at square leg as Cummins operated with six men on the leg-side. Then Marsh bowled with no slips but a bizarre cordon of three short extra covers amongst seven men on the off-side, but Cook was unflappability personified, reaching his 11th 150+ score for England, a new record as he overtook Hutton, Hammond and KP. He also went past Shivnarine Chanderpaul (having left Mahela Jayawardene behind yesterday) to become the seventh highest run-scorer in Test history.
In the evening session Cook went up a gear or two, scoring 67 runs and fittingly reaching a double hundred with another imperious straight drive. He then passed Viv Richards’ ground record for a player against Australia of 208 before going past another West Indian legend, Brian Lara, from the penultimate ball of the day to become the sixth highest Test run-scorer of all time.
While still playing each ball on its merits, Cook danced down the track to Lyon and deposited him over mid-on, back cut and drove the quicks to distraction, and even shimmied down to Pat Cummins. He started yesterday averaging 13.83 in this series. He ended it having scored more runs than anyone except Steve Smith and averaging 54.50; 61,389 people had seen something a bit special.
Alastair Cook turned 33 three days ago, on Christmas Day. He is younger than Shaun Marsh, a tad older than David Warner and Usman Khawaja. Please God he plays for plenty of years yet.