It isn’t going to be 5-0 to Australia. For the vast majority of this tour, and during the opening exchanges of his match, a whitewash had seemed a certainty. That England won’t lose every game represents a turnaround. That is how bad things had got. The series had gone, but this result mattered.
This match started off with England being dominated in much the same fashion as they have been throughout this chastening series defeat. The first session of the game saw Australia reach 102 without loss with David Warner on 83 not out. It was all so easy. England struggled to make any sort of inroads into the Australia top order. If the lack of penetration from that first session were to happen in Ireland or Afghanistan’s first Test there would be question marks over their elevation to full member status.
Things changed after lunch on Day One. England dried up the run rate and dismissed Warner for a well-made hundred. On Day Two they finally started taking wickets, with Stuart Broad the chief destroyer, as Australia were bowled out for 327. After a disastrous outing at Perth where Broad finished with career-worst figures of 0-142 this was a redemptive effort from England’s second most successful bowler of all time.
When England batted, there was another senior player who found form, with Alastair Cook finally making some runs in Australia after a tour and a half of struggles. The contrast between Cook in the 2010/11 Ashes, where he scored 766 runs, and his efforts on every other trip to Australia are stark. Here he passed a hundred and then made it a truly massive one to finish on 244 not out. That is the highest score made by a visiting batsman at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) apart from being the highest ever score made by a batsman carrying his bat in Tests and Cook’s fifth double hundred.
The issue for England with both of these performances was that they came once the Ashes were gone. It would have been much better if Broad and Cook had taken wickets and scored runs while the series was still alive. But that does not take away from their achievements. Runs and wickets in “dead rubbers” count exactly the same as any others, and the concept of them having a lesser value is only ever introduced in a tiresome way to talk down achievements of players that people have some sort of issue with.
Cricket is replete with such hot takes. Be it when people decide to exclude a player’s best innings to prove they have failed, or when it is decided that something doesn’t count because it came against a less successful team or when the series is gone. It is churlish and disrespectful of the players involved and our sport.
Ask Cook, Broad or England if this Test mattered, if it was better to lose 5-0 or get something out of one these remaining matches. Chances are they won’t even give you the credit of an answer. Mitchell Marsh batting for 275 balls for 26 runs to save this game for Australia, tell him that it didn’t matter if his team won or lost. These are fiercely proud men playing for their country and for their careers, and to suggest that either they or Australia aren’t really trying or that this doesn’t count is ridiculous.
Cook’s career will always be questioned. He is English, and as a result represents the team that are the bad guys in this movie. Everyone wants to beat the former colonial power and the attitude of certain sections of the team, the media and the fanbase will only ever further cement this attitude.
He is an ugly and angular batsman who plays reserved, and occasionally boring, innings which will never get the pulses racing. He also survived when Kevin Pietersen did not after the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash.
A man who has all of this going against him will be fighting an uphill battle for recognition, but some of the knots people have tied themselves in to criticise Cook’s career are remarkable.
Anyone who played 151 Tests would have this many runs we are told, as if playing that many Tests isn’t an achievement in of itself. He has the lowest average of anyone with 10,000 Test runs, as if making more than 10,000 Test runs at 46 is mediocre. He isn’t an all-time great according to some, so if he does play another four years and ends up surpassing Sachin Tendulkar’s record run haul we could have the leading batsman of all time not being a great of the game. Really?
Cook might not be your favourite player, and you would be mad to have him as your poster boy, but to try and suggest that his career is anything other than fantastic makes you look foolish.
When England’s innings came to an end on the very first ball of Day Four there were only two possible results. With England 164 runs in front, they could win or there would be a draw. A conservative batting effort from Australia that saw them plod along at just over two an over and the loss of 44 overs to rain meant that this game would always finish as a draw, with the painfully slow MCG pitch making that even more likely.
The only fission of excitement came when there were completely unfounded accusations of ball-tampering on the fourth day. England were cleaning the ball, and doing so in front of and with consent from the umpires. Still, Channel 9, Cricket Australia’s media arm and certain deliberately contrarian social media accounts tried to make something out of it. In truth, this non-existent scandal was the only exciting part of the last two days of this Test. And even this faux scandal was played out with very little gusto.
The rain didn’t help, and the pitch got slower and slower. Australia’s slow scoring rate, combined with the lack of any real magic, meant it was pretty ugly to watch. David Warner and Steve Smith made runs yet again. Warner didn’t make it to a second hundred in the match, rather getting out for 86 to a rash slog off Joe Root having been so patient until then.
Smith just kept on going, making his third hundred of the series to go along with two fifties. He has now made 604 runs and faced 1,258 balls in this series. His series average is now 151. Even those who want to talk down someone’s record are going to find it hard to find a problem with Smith’s numbers, either in this Ashes or in his career as a whole.
Looking forward, there now won’t be calls for Broad and Cook to be dropped, but there is one change that they will need to consider making. As much for the player himself as for the team, England need to think about giving Moeen Ali a rest. He looked a shadow of the player he can be in this match, with both the bat and the ball. On Day Five he was out-bowled by Dawid Malan and his very occasional leg-breaks. How they go about balancing their team without Moeen is the real question, and the reason why he may still get a game in Sydney.
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