Following another big Aussie win in Adelaide, the Australian side is only one Boxing Day Test win away from claiming an unassailable lead.
The MCG spectacle will be do-or-die for the English, who must find their form quickly if they are to stop Australia from holding up the urn in Melbourne.
It went from bad to worse for England in Adelaide, putting up another horrid performance en route to a 2-0 deficit in the series.
The English side put all of their eggs into the day-night Test basket, bringing back experienced campaigners in James Anderson and Stuart Broad to swing the pink ball around corners at night. None of it worked, as they bowled too short and suffered the consequences.
Joe Root’s comments post-match criticising the bowlers points to a dressing room out of order, as the English side are under a heap of fire about their decision-making and lack of grit against Australia’s consistent pressure.
On the other hand, Australia’s Adelaide win backed up its terrific Gabba performance, and showed they are a side capable of handling adversity. This came to a head on the opening morning when skipper Pat Cummins was removed from the side due to a COVID exposure.
It seems like at the moment Marnus Labuschagne is unable to hit less than 50 when he bats against England.
His series so far has been remarkable with 228 runs, including a gritty ton in the first innings of the Adelaide Test when the Aussies dug in or a decent score.
The Queenslander continues to look solid at number three for Australia, and is now the number one ranked batter in the world according to the ICC, the leading batter in world cricket currently. England knows all about his talents – he’ll have a target on his head going into Boxing Day.
Criminally underrated still, Nathan Lyon is the lynchpin for the Aussies.
He was at it once again in Adelaide, constantly challenging the outside edge of the left-handers’ bats while always bringing bat-pad into play for a right hander.
With the MCG deck expected to be a tad spicy and bouncy, Lyon’s overspin may come into play yet again, as his consistency in their bowling attack is proving to be an added bonus.
By far England’s second-best batter in this series (and some may say its best), Malan has done a stellar job at first drop, especially with the way his opening batters have performed. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy with his work – the left-hander revealed he is now wanting to push on and score big centuries.
“We’ve had myself and Joe Root in positions to score hundreds in two innings and we haven’t kicked on, which has cost us about 100 runs as a team apiece, which would get us into the game,” he said.
“Scoring 80 is good but scoring 180 is brilliant.”
Malan has still been a key player for England, often coming in early and under pressure. While he admits his team is hurting after a poor start to the series, he’s hopeful they can bounce back and have a shot at still winning back the Ashes.
“The boys are hurting after our performances in the last few games, we realise we haven’t been good enough across all facets of the game,” Malan said.
“We want to win the series still, I know it’s a long way to come but we have to do well in this Test to be able to get ourselves back in the series.”
It was a mixed Test for Buttler in Adelaide, taking a number of remarkable catches while also spilling some simple chances behind the stumps.
With bat in hand he went from a disappointing duck to a fortunate final day knock that ended in him standing on his own stumps in the last session – it sums it all up.
But as one of the best white ball batters in world cricket, Buttler is perilously close to breaking out with the red ball and giving England some much-needed batting depth.
If he can take some more catches consistently too, he may rejuvenate England’s hopes.
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Wood vs Warner/Labuschagne
With the firecracker pace of Mark Wood expected to return to the MCG after an impressive Brisbane display in the first Test, the fast bowler will come back to a pitch he has done well on.
In recent one-day matches against Australia at the MCG, Wood’s pace and bounce proved too much for David Warner – the English bowler will be raring to repeat the dose and get Australia on the back foot early.
With Warner being the only opener in either side to kick on and make a decent score, removing him early becomes a massive priority for England. Wood’s raw pace and bounce will be just the tonic called upon to ruffle his feathers and potentially bring about an early collapse that could usher in Labuschagne early.
Labuschagne, now the world’s number one Test batter, has looked comfortable leaving the slow seaming pace put forward by England’s other bowlers. But Wood is different – his quicker delivery speed could disrupt Labuschagne’s rhythm and have him misjudging deliveries when it matters.
His pace adds much-needed variation to England’s slow seaming attack, as his ability to frighten some Aussie batters may prove the key to unlocking Australia’s batting line-up.
Players to watch
Smith is always one to watch – a Test batting average of over 60 and a penchant for pummeling the Poms makes him an incredibly threatening figure to England.
But what makes Smith an even tougher prospect this week is his sublime record at the MCG – he averages over 140 at the ground in Test cricket and plundered four tons in four successive years in the Boxing Day match.
He’s done so against the Poms too – a 2017 rear-guard ton on the final day stopped England from claiming a win after a sublime Sir Alastair Cook double century.
With some members of that 2017/18 side carrying over into this match, plenty will have the memory of Smith comfortably smacking England’s bowlers to all parts of the vast MCG still imprinted on their brains.
Steve Smith is eternally a player to watch for England, but the pressure intensifies when he returns to his MCG haven.
One for big moments, it’s starting to feel like some Ben Stokes magic is the key to bringing England back from the brink of another Ashes defeat.
The all-rounder is mercurial when at his best, but has obviously struggled with niggling injuries that hampered his lead-up to the series.
When not resorting to bowling short spells, Stokes looks like a wicket-taking option, as his swing and bounce is often hard to face. With bat in hand, he has struggled to properly get going at the Stokes-tempo we all know, as he has been brought into his shell by Australia’s rigid bowling.
That doesn’t mean it’ll continue though – Stokes loves an Ashes fight, and a blockbuster Boxing Day bout may be the time he finally comes good.
Australia: After an Adelaide catastrophe with injury concerns and COVID-scares, Australia’s squad looks more settled heading into Boxing Day.
The batting order is now fine, with David Warner looking fit and healthy in Adelaide, as the main fitness problems revolve around Josh Hazlewood and the bowlers. Hazlewood looks unlikely to play at Melbourne, and instead be rested for the Sydney and Hobart Tests.
Mitchell Starc’s back and ribs flared up in Adelaide, with the pace bowler grabbing for his lower back while batting in the second innings. He bowled over 20 overs at fine pace though, as it looks unlikely that he’ll be rested by the Aussie camp.
England: Yet again there’s not much in terms of injury facing the English side, who look to have as close to a clean run of health as one can ask for.
Joe Root’s abdominal region took a beating on the final few days of the Adelaide Test, but he has pulled up fine and will be back out there batting on Boxing Day.
Ben Stokes still is slightly hampered by knee niggles that disrupted his preparation for the series, but it won’t stop him from trying to change the momentum of the series.
Australia: Harris, Warner, Labuschagne, Smith, Head, Green, Carey (wk), Cummins (c), Starc, Richardson, Lyon
England: Burns, Crawley, Malan, Root (c), Stokes, Bairstow, Buttler (wk), Wood, Broad, Anderson, Leach
Australia: Scott Boland, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins (c), Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
England: Joe Root (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler (wk), Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes Chris Woakes, Mark Wood
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