Alastair Cook reached the highest score by a visiting batsman at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), but England still managed to make it hard for themselves. As Cook batted brilliantly for 244 not out, the rest of the English middle-order did their best to undermine his efforts.
Even as they were having their best Test of this tour, the massive flaws in this England team’s batting were being exposed as starts were made and then surrendered. That it was when Cook was batting with Stuart Broad, England’s No 10, that they had their first truly dominant partnership says something about the effective but stuttering nature of this innings.
This was vintage Cook, a study in control with brief flourishes of aggression. Cook bats conservatively but he is always looking for ways to score. He is not really a plodder, rather an accumulator. But for him, England would have been in real trouble. In fact, they have been without his runs in this series and are trailing 3-0 as a result. If we had seen this Cook in the first three Tests, this series would still be alive.
The day began with Joe Root moving to his 35th Test fifty, but he did not do what Cook did — turn that into a really big score. You win Tests by taking 20 wickets, you set up those victories with big partnerships with the bat. Instead it was left to Cook to play a brilliant lone hand to get England in front.
Root played a pull shot off Pat Cummins that was ballooned to Nathan Lyon. He had made 61 and the conversion conversation started again. Of the four top batsmen in this era, Root has the worst ratio of turning 50s into 100s. Virat Kohli has the best with 57%, Steve Smith has 50%, Kane Williamson 39%. Root has turned just 27% of his 50 plus scores into centuries.
Now, this is a flawed stat. What matters is runs, not the units in which they are scored. But it is telling. It shows us that Root isn’t turning his good starts into match-defining performances. With Cook on an undefeated hundred, Root had the chance to create one of those innings. Instead, he played a poorly executed pull and was gone. 61 runs is better than any number of runs fewer than that, but if Root wants to be considered one of the greats, and he has the talent to be one, he needs to do better.
The innings lost momentum when Root and Cook were separated. Before England had passed Australia’s total, they were six wickets down, and everything rested on the tail hanging around with Cook. And this England tail are worse at hanging around than a deadbeat dad.
Finally, and under the expert guidance of Cook, the English tail wagged. Chris Woakes made 26 and Stuart Broad made a very entertaining 56. Broad will never again be the batsman who made 169 against Pakistan at Lord’s, but he showed here that he can still make telling contributions with the bat. Although the absence of Mitchell Starc would have helped.
England lost James Vince and Dawid Malan to decisions that would have been overturned had they reviewed, both men getting inside edges when dismissed lbw. The decision by Vince not to review his on day two was perhaps understandable; it was a thin edge and it looked very plumb. Malan not calling for a referral was more mystifying. It was clearly close to being “umpire’s call” on impact and as a result England would not have lost a review. Even without the big edge it was the wrong call not to review.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Decision Review System (DRS) is the way the focus on getting decisions right has shifted from the umpires to the players. You have good reviews and bad reviews but we rarely talk about good and bad umpiring decisions. It is an incredibly hard job, and this is not an attempt to be critical, but it is interesting how the narrative has shifted. You had Fox Sports Twitter account saying “Malan's non-review looking even worse now. Struck him outside off too,” effectively blaming the batsman for being incorrectly given out.
The most bizarre period of the day was when Moeen Ali walked out to bat. England’s spin-bowling all-rounder has had just about his worst series on this tour, and he looked rattled. He blasted a six down the ground off Nathan Lyon and didn’t slow down from there. He appeared to have no confidence that he would be able to score runs batting in a normal fashion and was just having a dart at everything.
Moeen eventually fell to Lyon for the sixth time this series, smearing a ball to short cover after scoring 20 runs from 14 balls. It was the innings of a man devoid of confidence in his own game, and it is hard to imagine him being picked for the final Test in Sydney. The issue England have is that Moeen balances the side. If you move everyone up a spot and have five bowlers, you are batting Chris Woakes at seven and England’s misfiring tail is even longer. You pick another batsman and leave out a bowler to extend the batting order and you have three seamers and a debutant spinner in Mason Crane to do all the bowling. Neither scenario is ideal.
Moeen’s profligacy did not cost his team as lower-order runs saved him blushes, and that Cook-Broad stand put England in a position from which they should not lose this Test. That is not a place England have managed to find themselves since this series got underway. The game is not completely safe just yet, but when you put yourself 164 runs in front on first innings, you should not lose.
Such is the nature of Alastair Cook’s relationship with social media and a vocal minority of England cricket fans that there will be those who will attempt to do down this achievement. They will say this pitch is flat, that the series is gone, that Starc wasn’t fit. All of that is so much nonsense. Before this innings, England were on the brink of an embarrassing 5-0 defeat. After it, they could even win a game. That objectively is a good thing.
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