England hope all-but snuffed out by electric Australia

Mitchell Starc dismissed Zak Crawley and Dawid Malan from successive deliveries in the final session of day two

Mitchell Starc dismissed Zak Crawley and Dawid Malan from successive deliveries in the final session of day two

At one stage on day two of the third Ashes Test, England had a glimmer.

Australia were 180-6 – five runs behind and with just four wickets in hand – as James Anderson followed his stupendous pre-lunch spell of 1-1 from six overs by returning in the afternoon to dismiss Marcus Harris for 76.

But Australia then managed to add a further 87 runs from that point – including 34 during a ninth-wicket stand between Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc – as they carved out a first-innings lead of 82.

James Anderson bowled brilliantly for England but his efforts look likely to come in vain

James Anderson bowled brilliantly for England but his efforts look likely to come in vain

The Ashes weren’t done yet – but Australia’s grip on them was still tight, particularly with England’s under-fire top order facing an examining hour against the new ball on a spicy pitch at a rocking MCG.

Fast forward 60 minutes and 12 overs, and England trudged off at 31-4, still 51 runs shy of making Australia bat again. The Ashes aren’t done yet – but they may be soon, perhaps as early as the morning of day three.

While a cursory glance at the scoreboard suggests another abject display from England’s batters, this felt different.

They didn’t give their wickets away, they were just simply blown away by a blistering, brutal, buoyant and relentless Australia attack.

Haseeb Hameed got off the pair he was in danger of suffering when he tucked a single into the leg-side off Starc in the first over. Then it began.

You’d have to say, on balance, that was Australia’s session. Just. England 31-4 and in tatters – still 51 runs shy of avoiding an innings defeat. Stirring to be here while Starc, Cummins and Boland were steaming in, it must be said. Australia closing in on 3-0, and the Ashes.

— Lawrence Booth (@the_topspin) December 27, 2021

In the second over, Cummins forced Hameed to fence a snorter over the slips off his armguard, while he also beat Zak Crawley’s outside edge. Starc curled a ferocious delivery past Hameed in the third over. Cummins bowled crackerjacks to Crawley in the fourth.

“Epic bowling”, was how Cricinfo described it.

Australia got their rewards in the fifth over as Starc struck twice in two balls. Crawley snicking behind to wicketkeeper Alex Carey for five before Dawid Malan was pinned lbw by a nip-backer first up. England 7-2.

A few of the 40-odd thousand fans at the MCG, who made for a raucous atmosphere and only added to the drama on the field, thought that was 7-3 but Starc’s hat-trick ball had whistled past Joe Root’s outside edge, not clipped it, before it was collected by Carey.

Root was batting inside the first 10 overs for the 28th time in Test matches in 2021 – and for the second time in as many days – but this time he could not apportion much blame to the batters ahead of him. This was Australia’s doing. Every ball a threat. Every ball an event.

The captain came close to joining Crawley and Malan back in the shed, slashing Starc between slip and gully in the seventh over and then edging the same bowler short of a diving Carey in the ninth. Root was also beaten on his outside edge by Cummins as the bowling onslaught continued.

The pressure was not released even when local lad Scott Boland come on in place of Starc to bowl the 11th and penultimate over of the evening, which concluded with England in even more dire straits.

A squared-up Hameed clipped behind to Carey for seven and night-watchman Jack Leach was bowled shouldering arms two balls later, having nearly dragged the first delivery he faced onto his stumps.

England 22-4 with the dismissals of Malan and Leach for no score taking their tally of Test ducks in 2021 up to 52.

There was still time for one more fine over from Cummins before stumps. The Australia skipper testing his English counterpart, before Root drilled the final ball down the ground for three and, presumably, let out an audible sigh of relief.

He had survived and his team still have the slenderest chance of doing similar, even though Australia are now just six wickets away from an unassailable 3-0 lead.

What a day & what drama. Eng had a great day with the ball & fought back hard. @jimmy9 bowled the best he’s bowled in Oz & the last 45 mins was test cricket at its best. Proper contest. Bowlers steaming in, batters trying to survive, crowd totally involved. Just ❤️ test cricket

— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) December 27, 2021

Plenty of England’s problems in this series have been self-inflicted – selection, bowling plans, sloppy fielding, frequent batting collapses – but the final hour in Melbourne on Monday was down to Australia wrestling back control, not being given it.

Speaking to BT Sport, former England pacemen Steve Harmison said: “I’d say England were blown away. It was fantastic fast bowling from Australia.

“You can talk about same old, same old from England, old mistakes, but it was proper, proper fast bowling. The wicket is offering a bit but if England had been five or six down I don’t think they could have complained, with the areas Australia bowled.”

Former Australia seamer Glenn McGrath added on the same channel: “I think Jimmy Anderson would love to pick this pitch up and take it with him!

“These are as good a bowling conditions as you are going to get and that hour was as tough a batting conditions as you are going to face.

“You are really under microscope. There is bounce, pace, seam, so you can’t be too tough on the England batters. It was really hard work.”

Joe Root is unbeaten on 12 having come through a testing spell

Joe Root is unbeaten on 12 having come through a testing spell

Moeen Ali, also speaking to BT Sport, said the only positive was the fact Root did not depart before stumps. The captain will resume on Tuesday unbeaten on 12, with Ben Stokes two not out.

We should not entirely write off England’s chances.

No one has scored more Test runs in 2021 than Root – he now needs 97 more to top the record haul in a calendar year of 1,788 which Pakistan’s Mohammad Yousuf set in 2006 – while Stokes, of course, has previous when it comes to rescuing England from perilous Ashes positions.

Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler are still to come, with the latter surely hoping to atone for his soft dismissal on day one of this Test, and if England can fashion any sort of lead, even as low as 120 or 150, then Australia will not relish batting last on this MCG surface.

But if Australia bowl like they did late on day three, we might not get that far.

Moeen added: “Root and Stokes are probably going to have to play the best innings of their careers. I know Stokesy and Rooty have both done that previously but they are going to have to do it again for us to stand a chance. It is a big ask on this wicket, in my opinion, but there is hope.”

Ah, hope. England do still have a glimmer but it is fading fast.