Australia gifted a reprieve by broken England

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Melbourne:  Some years ago, during Australia’s run of Ashes dominance, a banner appeared at the SCG with the words “if the Poms bat first, let’s tell the taxi to wait”. It would have been an altogether appropriate placard for day three of the Boxing Day Test, as England kicked away a position of enormous advantage with feckless batting at a raucous MCG.

In doing so they opened up the possibility of a 4-0 margin to Michael Clarke’s team, with Chris Rogers and David Warner knocking off 30 of the 231 runs required by the close. The target remains challenging, but is nowhere near the figure Alastair Cook had in mind when he and Michael Carberry had cantered to 0 for 65 shortly after lunch.

Mitchell Johnson was again the catalyst for much of this mayhem, dismissing Cook for 51 and later conjuring a run out amid a slide of 3 for 1 in six balls. In all, 10 English wickets fell for 114, Nathan Lyon claiming most of the spoils with 5 for 50, including his 100th Test wicket – Stuart Broad taken at slip by Clarke – and that of Kevin Pietersen, who resisted stoutly once more until the rush of wickets compelled him to lash out.

The scars of such a reversal can be lasting, and it was a telling indicator of England’s brittle confidence that they would follow their stand out day of the series with an equally strong contender for their worst – though this is admittedly a category with many nominees. A common denominator no matter where or when such problems have occurred is the vanishing of the touring tail.

In what has become a scenario almost as inevitable in this series as death and taxes, the last five England wickets evaporated, this time for six runs in 40 balls. No starker contrast could be provided with Australia than the way in which Lyon and Brad Haddin squeezed 40 runs from their last wicket partnership in the morning.

Haddin’s 65 gave him the highest aggregate by a wicketkeeper in any Ashes series, while Lyon’s eagerness to contribute in whatever way he can is emphasised by the fact that Australia’s No. 11 now has made 53 runs for the series without being dismissed.

Even so, England began their second innings with an advantage of 51, and Cook was particularly positive in approach to stretch the lead. Carberry was happy to ride in his leader’s slipstream, their vast scoring differential of little concern to England as their advantage mounted.

Clarke, so dominant for much of the series, was left bereft of options, and called on Shane Watson to bowl either side of lunch despite the allrounder’s suffering of a groin strain in the first innings. He bowled gingerly but could not take a wicket as the lead grew to 105 by the interval.

England’s batsmen could envisage an afternoon’s quiet accumulation, but the self-destructive tendencies that have bedevilled them this series were to rear dramatically and disrupt Cook and Carberry’s earlier serene progress. Cook had been fluent, but on 51 was pinned in front by Johnson’s movement back at him, Aleem Dar judging the ball would have gone on to take leg stump – Cook did not review.

Joe Root walked out to build the lead, but second ball might easily have been walking back to the rooms. Johnsons and Haddin went up for a caught behind appeal as the ball fizzed across Root’s defensive blade, and so did Dar’s finger. After a slight delay, Root reviewed, and the absence of any HotSpot or Real-Time Snicko evidence had Billy Bowden reversing the decision.

Any thoughts that this close call would allow England to settle down were to be scotched by the mounting pressure on a muted Carberry, who had faced 81 balls for his 12 runs when Peter Siddle struck him in line from around the wicket and won another lbw verdict. Next over, Root chanced a single to Johnson’s strong left arm at mid-off and lost when the fast man’s throw clattered the stumps.

Then to general astonishment, Ian Bell chipped his first ball into Johnson’s hands after Nathan Lyon had floated the ball up to the bat. Australia’s fielders celebrated wildly, for they were back into a match that had looked well and truly out of reach.

Pietersen and Ben Stokes resisted usefully for a time, their 44-run union threatening to blossom into something greater before Lyon tempted Stokes into a lofted drive that lobbed obligingly into the hands of Steve Smith, posted precisely a little more than half way to the long-off boundary.

Pietersen and Bairstow added another 42, taking England to the edge of supremacy given Melbourne’s history of giving up few lofty fourth innings chases. But Johnson returned to coax an edge from Bairstow and engage in a heated confrontation with Pietersen after the batsman pulled awaydue to movement near the sight screen, heralding the breathless passage in which Lyon claimed three wickets and raised the ball to the crowd for his fourth Test five-for as gusty winds swept the outfield.

Tim Bresnan swished on the back foot and was bowled, though required replay confirmation after rather brusquely standing his ground. Broad nicked a nice off break to slip, and a cornered Pietersen skied an attempt to drive Lyon into the Great Southern Stand and was pouched by Harris, who did well not to be distracted by the swirling air currents.

Johnson then charged in to pin Monty Panesar lbw and so allow Rogers and Warner eight overs before the close. Calmly and smoothly they compiled 30 without loss, Rogers punching through cover from the day’s final ball to push Australia closer. The taxi can wait.

Australia 204 (Haddin 65, Rogers 61, Anderson 4-67) and 0 for 30 (Warner 12*, Rogers 18*) need 201 to beat England 251 and 179 (Cook 51, Lyon 5-50)

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