On the back of Alastair Cook’s record-breaking and still undefeated 244, England have put themselves in a position of strength to not only avoid a whitewash in the Magellan Ashes series but to actively contemplate victory come the final days of the fourth Test.
With virtually no prior form and as little indication, Cook batted more than 10 hours to set a new benchmark for a visiting Test batter at the MCG and could yet become the first England opener since Geoffrey Boycott almost 40 years ago to carry his bat through the innings of an Ashes Test in Australia.
In doing so, the former England captain lifted England’s first innings to an imposing 9-491 at the close of day three.
Which represents a lead of 164 over an Australia team that had summarily dominated the first three Tests but looked increasingly ineffectual on a flat, slow MCG pitch where they under-performed with the bat yesterday.
With showers and a possible storm or two forecast for Melbourne over the final two days of the match, Australia’s best hope appears to be a draw which would rob England of a deserved success built largely on Cook’s phenomenal batting deed.
As Cook showed during the previous England summer, when he posted three scores of 10 or less from his first seven Test innings to find his tenure being debated, when he does find his groove he is near impossible to shift from it.
That lean trot was broken by a score of 243 against the West Indies at Edgbaston, and while suggestions that he might revisit that scenario in Australia seemed far-fetched across the first three Ashes fixtures there remained some supporters who did not doubt his capacity to bounce back.
Though anyone who dared suggest he would expunge Sir Vivian Richards’ name from the MCG honour board as owner of the highest score by a visiting Test batter might have been counselled, if not certified.
Similarities between the swaggering Antiguan knight and the former St Paul’s Cathedral boarding school choirboy turned Leighton Buzzard sheep farmer begin and end at their coincidental place in Melbourne’s Test cricket history.
It was fitting that Cook passed 200 when he punched Jackson Bird back down the ground for four, and entirely in character that the most animated celebration the triumphant moment saw came from his batting partner Stuart Broad who punched the air and leapt in excitement.
Cook restricted his outpouring to a perfunctory wave of his bat towards England’s team and their travelling supporters followed by a glance to the overcast Melbourne sky.
A more spirited showing ensued 10 overs later when Broad reached an even more unlikely 50 (given his recent batting form) with a clubbed boundary off a Pat Cummins’ bouncer, a dose that was repeated next ball as England’s ninth-wicket pair posted a century partnership.
It took an extraordinary act of athletic face-planting from Usman Khawaja to break that invaluable, although the video evidence that ruled against Broad was not as conclusive as it was compellingly intriguing.
So Root’s frustration at giving up his innings on 61, when England were barely past 200 and still more than 100 runs in arrears, was as understandable as it was palpable.
For the eighth time in 10 innings since his most recent Test century last August, Root made it past 20 but perished before pushing on to 75 as questions about his capacity to convert his starts (as befitting a world top five-ranked batter) increased in volume.
But the 26-year-old, who took over the leadership in July this year, was wholly to blame for trying to hook a high bouncer from Pat Cummins into an expanse of outfield in which a sole fielder lurked.
And when the top-edged mishit looped unerringly into the hands of that person (Nathan Lyon) at square leg set two-thirds of the distance to the fence, Root had his back turned and was headed for the players’ exit tunnel before the catch had been taken.
Breaking stride only to kick angrily at the MCG turf and to hurl his discarded batting gloves at the boundary rope as he disappeared from the field of play.
If Root’s departure was unnecessary then the circumstances that saw Perth century maker Dawid Malan follow him back to the sheds 50 minutes later were unbelievable when the left-hander was adjudged lbw by Indian umpire S Ravi.
While Josh Hazlewood was certain the delivery that thudded into Malan’s front pad – the second sent down with the second new ball – had nipped back sufficiently to skittle the stumps, Malan inquired of Cook whether it was worth reviewing before letting the decision stand and trudging off.
Like teammate James Vince a day earlier, Malan would have reached the England rooms to learn (via hot spot technology on the television coverage) that he had edged the ball on to his pads and would have been spared to continue batting had he the awareness to challenge the verdict.
Which also meant three of England’s first four wickets had fallen to carelessness, a figure that grew to five when Jonny Bairstow brought the attacking mindset that served him so well at the WACA Ground to the middle of the vastly different MCG, and quickly paid the price.
By this stage, Cook was closing in on 150 and had not played anything resembling a false stroke since he was dropped at slip by Smith when on 66 the previous evening.
As such, the obdurate opener needed only someone with some batting acumen to stay with him as England crept inside 50 runs of Australia’s first innings and no sooner had waning all-rounder Moeen Ali arrived in the middle than he broadcast volubly that he was not to be that player.
His second scoring shot was a very lofted straight hit off Lyon that Cummins might have caught had he been a little more aware of where his feet were planted in relation to the boundary rope, but which ultimately yielded a six as it escaped his grasp.
A couple more boundaries came during his 15-minute cameo that was never going to last much longer, and the manner by which it ended was highly predictable and equally embarrassing.
Moeen’s errant slap at a delivery that Lyon had dragged down into the pitch flew above head height to Shaun Marsh at short cover, and Cook simply turned his back at the non-striker’s end as the player who had begun this series as England’s number six batter left the scene.
And quite likely left Test cricket, at least for the final match of this series that starts in Sydney next week.
The resilience that Moeen might have been expected to summon came instead from his fellow all-rounder Chris Woakes who batted more than an hour and half with Cook, during which time England posted a first innings lead for the first time in the series.
And Cook took himself to the cusp of a fifth Test double-century, Australia having missed another chance to end his occupation on 153 when Smith turfed another sharp chance to his right, this time fielding at square leg where the left-hander’s lofted pull shot went from Cummins’s bowling.