After half a day is lost to rain, the draw is now favourite, but this match refuses to fall in with pre-ordered narratives. England still believe that with a bit of reverse swing in the air, they can pull it off, writes Phil Walker from Melbourne.
This maddening match refuses to yield.
At lunch on day one, wearied wits were tweeting about the end of days for England’s faders. By the close, with Australia three down and Smith unbeaten, the bookies looked out and saw nothing more than a 9/1 shot.
Then Alastair Cook got to work.
It could rain all day tomorrow, thereby wiping out the last day and a half of this match, and the thing that Cook did will still be talked about for years. No Test batsman has ever carried his bat for more. You never know, he might just cream an unbeaten 70 in the gloaming tomorrow night and stroll off having been on the field for five unbroken days. England can still win this one. They are the only team who can.
— ICC (@ICC) December 28, 2017
Australia’s media love nothing more than putting the boot in, and adroitly do they do so. Still, for all the flag-waving, Pom-pelting and Broad-baiting; oh, and those #BeatEngland ads starring unfeasibly angry four-year-olds out-acting David Warner, they also enjoy giving credit where it’s due, and today has still felt like Cook’s day here: rolling interview clips from the previous evening, slo-mo montages, endless lists of records smashed. It was a rare and rousing sight to see a little sportsmanship breaking out as Cook walked off last night, every Australian fielder shaking his hand; and the gesture drifted all the way up to the media boxes.
More than anything, they like demonstrations of ‘ticker’ out here; style can go hang. Some talk on Aussie TV today focused on where Cook stood in the pantheon of Test batting greats; the answer: considerably higher than this time last week. At one point yesterday, walking through one of the three thousand bars in this ridiculous 90-000 piece jigsaw, I heard one local man say to another: “Right. So that’s Alastair Cook…”
Alas, the conviviality wouldn’t last.
The day’s big ‘talking point’, which one suspects will soon be seen as a brouhaha in a tea cup, is whether England got funky on the Kookaburra. As inconclusive footage homed in Jimmy Anderson, Channel Nine commentator Michael Slater was ready to go: “You can’t get your nail into the ball. That’s a no-no.” Co-commentator Shane Warne was duly roused, observing that the footage of Anderson’s thumbnail near the quarter-seam would get people talking. “I’m not sure you are allowed to use your fingernail there,” he said on Nine’s telecast, possibly unaware that he and Slats were indeed those people doing that talking. “If you are going to touch the ball at all, it’s not just shining it, you want to do it right in front of the umpire so they know there is nothing untoward going on.”
“In the Umpires words, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about”
“It’s a bit of pommie-bashing, we’re used to it, we knew coming here it’d be 24 million v 11”
— The Ashes on BT Sport (@btsportcricket) December 29, 2017
After play, Trevor Bayliss was thrown up to defend the pictures and made the point, rather beautifully, that if Anderson had been manipulating the ball, he was doing it pretty badly because his thumb was on the wrong side of the thing anyway; if only he’d been so deft at deflecting other enquiries on this tour. The fallout: not much. Both captains have been warned by the match referee over scuffing the ball when returning it in from the deep. To which one can easily imagine those shamed schoolboys traipsing off, heads bowed, shoelaces dragging, before bounding down the corridor in stitches. The chasm, between what goes down on the field and the officials’ conviction to police it, has never been wider.
So, the deal is this: England need eight wickets by tea at the absolute latest to stand any chance of chasing down whatever lead Australia can put up. The draw is the big-time favourite now, because the epic Steve Smith and the resolutely becalmed Warner are still there; and between them they have chipped away at the deficit to leave Australia just 61 behind. England were robbed of half a day’s bowling here, which felt like yet another cosmic injustice; but the consolation, and it’s a biggish one, is that reverse swing is distinctly in the air. They bowled tightly, probingly today, with Curran again impressing and Woakes again bearing his immaculate teeth in another strong showing. They have 98 overs tomorrow to claim as stirring a win as they can have claimed in many a year.