The Ashes may have gone, but for the first time in the series England’s senior players turned up in force during the early part of a Test match to put Australia under pressure.
Alastair Cook was the most notable contributor among England’s grandees, scoring his 32nd Test hundred, a daddy too after it had stretched to 244 by the close on day three.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad also ‘came to the party’, as Duncan Fletcher would say, sharing seven wickets between them. Indeed, Broad’s four for 51 was his best return of 2017.
As it is the festive season, let us be charitable, at least to start with. After three Tests in which Cook had made 83 runs at 13.8, there were a good number of people calling for him to be replaced.
Not for them the old cliche that ‘form is temporary, class permanent’. Just the questionable theory that most sporting malaises are best stopped by the shock of the new. Fortunately, for England and Cook, the coach and captain resisted the cry of the mob and picked him for his 151st Test.
Cook knows he has been letting his team and country down and has been putting in extra hours with personal coach Gary Palmer. Like most batsmen, his struggles can be linked to his footwork, the foundation from which most ills and indeed, excellence, in batting, stem.
A tall man, Cook’s footwork is more vital than most for securing his balance. If he does not provide a solid base from which to play his shots, his head falls over. This brings lbw into play along with his other principle vulnerability – that of caught behind, mostly from indeterminate drives or pushes off the front foot.
The key, especially for a tall man coming forward, is to transfer your weight through the ball. Cook had failed to do this earlier in the series, his front foot barely making it beyond the front crease. In this Test he has got both his head and his right leg coming forward towards the ball with purpose. As a result, his front-foot shots, drives especially, have been as crisp and emphatic as at any time during his career.
Mitchell Starc must take much of the credit in keeping Cook tethered and uncertain during the first three Tests. His full length and swing with the new ball, at 90mph, has been Cook’s undoing more than once. Starc’s absence in Melbourne has therefore been a major fillip for both Cook and England. Naturally, it is impossible to measure how much confidence is gained from the opposition being a gun bowler down, but having Jackson Bird come in for Starc is like replacing Shergar with a Dungeness donkey.
Cook has long been admired for his determination and you could see the resolve etched into his face as he fought both his and England’s demons.
The Ashes may have gone but there is still some pride at stake, not least in avoiding the humiliation of a whitewash – something Cook has experienced twice before, once as captain. Yet, you can try too hard to succeed, choking down on the bat and your shots in the process, something he was savvy enough to avoid as his cracking off-side drives proved.
But was it a matter of time, or confidence, or both for Cook? Whichever, his return to form has come too late for England in the most important Test series they play, which in turn questions the wisdom of having a break from cricket as long as he did (September 12 to late October).
It seems to be the accepted norm now for players to have long holidays, which is fine providing they have a generous lead-in time of practice and tour matches before the serious cricket starts up again. On this tour, England had a week’s nets, a two-day game in Perth, and two four-day matches against modest opposition before the Tests began. It might be enough for some but not Cook.
The resurrection of Broad in this match, while equally welcome for England supporters, is perhaps not as curious. Traditionally, England’s bowlers perform worse abroad than at home anyway, with Broad no exception.
Indeed, his average per wicket is six and half runs better in England than overseas while his strike-rate is 16 balls fewer. Incredibly, Broad’s four for 51 were his best innings figures for 2017, home or away. This suggests a slow decline has set in, something experienced by most fast bowlers once they hit their thirties and their agility, fitness and pain thresholds diminish.
The best possess a nous to make up for those shortcomings, at least for a while. And so it was with Broad at the MCG, especially on the second day when the ball just offered a bit of lateral movement via reverse swing.
With a hint of deviation on offer, he had the savvy to come over the wicket to the left-handed, Shaun Marsh. Previously, he had been going round the wicket, almost exclusively, to left-handers. The angle brought lbw into play and, hey presto, within a few balls such a dismissal had been triggered.
Ditto Anderson, who while not as toothless as Broad during the earlier Tests, took his chances here when the ball began to move about. Luck also played its part, with several Aussies playing-on, the result of a slow pitch not encouraging the horizontal bat strokes beloved of those wearing the baggy green.
Also, Broad and Anderson’s prompt demolition, which saw them take five wickets for 13 runs either side of lunch on the second day, was of Australia’s tail, due for a fall after exceeding expectations for most of the series.
The best teams create legacies that last longer than one generation of players by moving forward with a mix of youth and experience, at least until the first element can take all that is thrown at it.
Now that the Ashes have gone for a few years, that is the value of Cook, Anderson and Broad to England, at least over the next 12 months. That, and making sure another humiliating whitewash is avoided.