On a day when the pandemic cast its latest shadow over cricket in the time of Covid, Mitchell Starc and Scott Boland dismantled England on the second evening at the MCG, as Australia came within breathing distance of a 3-0 lead – and the retention of the Ashes.

There was doubt about this series, as four of the England entourage members tested positive for the virus. The players were left to do nothing but score runs and take wickets.

Starc’s blistering new-ball performance and Boland’s thrilling penultimate over, saw the Australians get closer to their goal. England were 31 for four and – despite the presence of Joe Root and Ben Stokes – all but gone. To avoid losing an innings, they still require 51.  

Australia are just six wickets from the Ashes after a dramatic end to day two at the MCG

After a thrilling end to the second day at the MCG, Australia is just six wickets away from the Ashes 

Mitchell Starc took two wickets as England's top-order imploded once again late in the day

Mitchell Starc was the first to take two wickets after England’s top order collapsed late in day. 

Zak Crawley (pic) was the first to be dismissed before Dawid Malan went for a golden duck

Zak Crrawley (picture) was the first person to be fired before Dawid Malan, who went after a golden goose 

Night-watchman Jack Leach was the fourth wicket after he left a ball which hit the top of off

Jack Leach, night-watchman was fourth wicket. He had left a ball that hit the offside of the onside. 

This was the end of an exciting day for England, which had started with the ball. 

England’s openers had walked out into Melbourne’s cauldron with just under an hour to go before the close, knowing that survival might give their team a chance of doing something special next day.

Starc decided to have Zak Crawley catch behind for five on the fourth ball in the fifth over. Starc was a stiff forward defensive and the bat held out in hope instead of expectation. This gave Alex Carey a straightforward edge.

Next ball Dawid Malan was back in his crease as usual and was struck on the pad with a ball that had nipped in. Is it missing a leg stump? It was too high. 

Umpire Paul Wilson thought for a moment, and upheld Starc’s shout. Malan’s inevitable review confirmed the closeness of the decision, but the ball was clipping the outside of the top of leg stump, and Wilson’s on-field ruling was upheld.

England No 3 Malan stayed back in his crease and was trapped lbw by Starc on his first ball

England’s No 3 Malan was seated in the crease, and Starc caught him lbw on his first ball. 

Out walked Root to face the hat-trick ball, with a crowd that – at its peak – numbered 42,626 baying for blood. Root almost gave them their wish, beating outside off just as the MCG was about to explode.

However, the pain wasn’t over. Haseeb Hameed dutifully played the line of Boland’s third ball, and was caught behind for seven – another failure on a tour that is fast becoming unwatchable for England’s young opener.

Jack Leach then walked out as nightwatchman, only to play no stroke at his second ball – and lose his off stump. Stokes was then able to get out of the dressing room, arousing the crowd.

Scott Boland had a dream conclusion to day two taking two wickets amid a terrific atmosphere

Scott Boland’s day 2 was a great success. He took two wickets in a fantastic atmosphere.

Earlier, Jimmy Anderson had been central to limiting Australia’s first-innings lead to 82, collecting four for 33 from 23 immaculate overs as the hosts were dismissed for 267 in reply to England’s 185.

And it made the laxness of England’s strokeplay on Boxing Day – especially from the senior core of their middle order – all the more galling. If Root, Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, or Jos Buttler, had they knuckled under, instead of succumbing to their increasingly English habit of feeling bat on ball, then perhaps they could now be taking a look at a lead.

But, all the buts and ifs in this series will be enough to inspire a novel. England finds the truth more unpleasant.

At least their stuck to their guns on a sunny, blustery day in Melbourne, chipping away at Australia’s batting line-up and, for the first time in the series, staying within touching distance of their hosts.

England's dramatic collapse with the bat followed a day when they toiled hard with the ball

England’s collapse as a batsman followed an entire day of hard work with the ball

Australia was resuming at 61-1. Ollie Robinson hit first. Nathan Lyon, nightwatchman, made it 76-2. And it was 84 for three when Mark Wood found the hitherto unlocatable outside edge of Marnus Labuschagne’s bat and Root clung on at slip.

Anderson bowled Steve Smith via an inside edge thick enough to cause him injury. Australia was 110 for 4, and Australia still 75 behind.

Marcus Harris and Travis Head, however, rode their luck outside of stump and settled down against Leach’s nervy spin. They added 61 runs each side of lunch, before another round of wickets.

Robinson had Head caught by Root for 27, playing away from his body, before Harris finally nibbled once too often, edging Anderson to Root to depart for 76 – three short of equalling his Test-best.

The ever-impressive James Anderson ended Australia's innings with four wickets to his name

Australia was ended by the ever-impressive James Anderson with four wickets.

England seamer Ollie Robinson also took two wickets, including that of Travis Head

Ollie Robinson of England also captured two wickets including one from Travis Head 

After tea, Leach won a marginal lbw decision to get rid of Cameron Green for 17 – and was mobbed by team-mates who understood the significance of the moment – and Carey drove loosely at Stokes: 171 for four had become 219 for eight.

England could have reduced the gap to 45 if it had taken the two last wickets fast. Scott Boland and Starc Cummins helped secure 48 runs. In a low-scoring game, Australia’s lead was more than useful.

As so often over the last 18 months, however, much of the drama took place before a ball had been bowled, as it emerged that four members of England’s touring party – two of the backroom coaching staff and two family members – had tested positive for Covid.

This news meant that all England players would have to undergo a quick round of flow tests. They had already boarded a team bus to travel from the Park Hyatt the MCG but were required to return to their hotels to await the results.

There was concern before play started of a Covid scare as England arrived late to the MCG

Before play began, there was concern about a Covid crisis as England arrived late at the MCG. 

After all the negative tests were returned, players made their way to the ground. Stuart Broad and Craig Overton were not allowed. Craig Overton stayed behind as a precaution and was joined by another backroom employee, who was considered a close contact.

Nick Hockley is the chief executive officer of Cricket Australia. He expressed confidence in the possibility that both the Test and Series will be completed. There are four and five matches planned for Sydney where the omicron strain has spread faster than any other place in Australia. Hobart where authorities have closely managed the virus, however, was the final match.

Both teams had to go through a second round of PCR testing after the play ended on Day 2. Officials on each side were holding their breath.

Both teams are due to undergo a fresh round of PCR tests after play on the second day

After play ends on Day 2, both teams will have to go through a second round of PCR testing.

Jack Leach got his first wicket of the Ashes as he trapped Cameron Green via lbw for 17

Jack Leach captured Cameron Green with lbw, his first wicket for the Ashes.

A series with more positive outcomes would have to be discredited, as rules for close contacts differ from one state to the next. All close contact would have been quarantined if the positive four cases had occurred in New South Wales and Tasmania.

‘Everyone now is on high alert, everyone is being extra cautious,’ said Hockley.

‘But everyone is desperate to play. They’ve been living with this for 18 months, and both sides are really committed to continuing with the series.’ 


Lawrence Booth Melbourne

Two more ducks on the second evening, for Dawid Malan and nightwatchman Jack Leach, took England’s Test tally for 2021 to 52, leaving them with an outside chance of breaking their own record for a calendar year of 54 in 1998.

Jimmy Anderson’s figures of four for 33 from 23 overs meant he finished the second day with a fractionally better Ashes average in Australia (67 wickets at 33.20) than in England (44 at 33.38). He had his seventh run of at least four runs in Australia and it was his second best analysis after five for 43 when he used the pink ball at Adelaide four year ago.

In 2021, his record for first innings was a perfect 33 runs at 16 each. He scored six runs at 48 in his second innings.

Australian opener Marcus Harris made his first half-century in 17 Test innings stretching back to January 2019 – nearly three years ago. He would still have the highest Test score, 79 against India, if he had another three runs.

Haseeb Hameed was dismissed after making runs of 25 and 27 in Brisbane. After a nearly five-year absence, Haseeb Hameed returned to Test cricket in summer and has now made 205 runs.

Meanwhile, his opening partner Zak Crawley’s removal for five means he averages 10 since his 267 against Pakistan at the Ageas Bowl in 2020.