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England’s batting flopped again as they slumped to 128 for six on day one of the Boxing Day Test, leaving Australia with one hand on the urn.
The tourists have yet to reach 300 in the series and the familiar frailty of their top seven reared its head again as Australia bossed proceedings in front of more than 51,000 fans at the MCG.
Captain Joe Root was furious with himself for giving his wicket away on 50, his ninth unconverted half-century Down Under, but he was still the top scorer in a group that looks incapable of asserting any kind of authority.
Twice England lost a wicket in the last act of the session, Dawid Malan just before lunch and Jos Buttler on the stroke of tea. At 2-0 down, anything but victory will mean England cannot reclaim the urn and that looks a considerable ask from here.
Australia skipper Pat Cummins, returning to the XI after Covid protocols kept him out in Adelaide, was the star performer as he took three wickets in the morning session to lay the foundations for his side.
Having chosen to bowl first Cummins decided to share new-ball duties with Mitchell Starc and gave his side a perfect start to get the stadium rocking.
Haseeb Hameed had left every ball of Starc’s opening over but had no such luxury against Cummins, who was immediately asking the kind of questions around off stump that demand affirmative answers.
His first two balls to Hameed zipped in off the pitch but the third held its line, grazing the edge of a pushy defensive stroke. Alex Carey swallowed the catch and England reached the unwanted landmark of a 50th Test duck in 2021.
Malan has been serving as a de facto opener since the start of the series, forced into service by the persistent failures above him, and took 18 deliveries to get off the mark as he began cautiously.
Zak Crawley, on the other hand, was eager to get going having replaced the dropped Rory Burns. There were a couple of nice connections, including a straight drive to get off the mark, but also an early swish at fresh air and a loopy leading edge that could have gone anywhere.
He was Cummins’ second victim for 12, squared up by one that kicked up and took the shoulder of the bat. Cameron Green did the rest at gully, bringing Root to the crease in the eighth over.
The England captain was immediately busy, dashing a single off his first ball and flicking debutant Scott Boland off his legs for four off his second. Most importantly he survived the rest of Cummins’ initial burst.
Things began to look more straightforward as soon as he was shuffled out of the attack and Australia’s hopes that Nathan Lyon’s spin would discomfort Malan did not materialise.
A sense of stability had emerged until Cummins elbowed his way back into the spotlight, slanting one across Malan with three balls of the session to go and snaring the edge. Malan was gone for a battling 14, leaving Root to carry the burden again.
He breezed towards his half-century in just 76 balls, another unhurried, calm knock from a player in the form of his life. He went third on the all-time list for runs in a calendar year, leapfrogging South Africa’s Graeme Smith, but there was another statistic he wanted: a first century in Australia.
But, for the ninth time, he could not turn his fifty into a ton. He did not get close, momentarily losing his concentration and flashing at a Starc ball that should not have threatened. David Warner was clapping before the ball settled in Carey’s gloves while Root was seen punching his bat in fury.
It was the first of three regrettable shots from experienced players in the afternoon. Ben Stokes was next, fighting his way to 25 before cramping himself for room trying to fabricate a risky uppercut against Cameron Green. He could only carve a catch to backward point.
Buttler was even more culpable deciding he would give Lyon the charge a few moments prior to the interval. It went horribly, with a gentle mis-hit sailing straight down the throat of Boland at deep-midwicket.
That left Jonny Bairstow as the last batter standing, with a flimsy tail to follow.