December 26, 2002

England bowlers struggle to contain Australia at MCG

Bing Crosby might have been dreaming of a white Christmas, but Steve Waugh was still dreaming of a whitewash after the first day's play in the fourth Ashes Test at the MCG. Waugh won the toss and then sat back as Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer each compiled hundreds and, in the process, broke a 95 year-old record. By the close, Australia had reached 356 for three with Langer unbeaten on 146 and Waugh relieving pressure on his own place in the side with an innings of 62 not out.

Australia, already three-nil up in the series, made two changes from the last Test in Perth. Leg-spinner Stuart MacGill replaced the injured Shane Warne, while Martin Love made his Test debut at the expense of Darren Lehmann who was unable to shake off his leg infection. With Alec Stewart failing to recover from his bruised hand, James Foster was included to keep wicket for England with resulting changes to the composition of the rest of the side. They opted to play an extra batsman with John Crawley returning in place of Alex Tudor while Andrew Caddick was recalled for Chris Silverwood.

This left England's attack looking thin, with only four recognised bowlers in Caddick Steve Harmison, Craig White and off-spinner Richard Dawson. The same paucity could not be detected in the Australian batting line-up as Hayden and Langer made full use of a pitch promising plenty of runs when Waugh won the toss.

Hayden has been in unstoppable form during the series, but he did offer the odd moment of hope to England's bowlers who far from disgraced themselves during the morning session. In the first over he hooked Caddick just over Harmison's head at long leg for a boundary and another opportunity went begging when Crawley failed to sight the ball at deep backward square leg and it bounced in just front of him before going over the rope.

The Queenslander, averaging 94 in the first three Tests, was also inconvenienced in the ninth over of the morning when struck a blow on the knee by Caddick. However, he took only a short time to recover before going on to pass the milestone of 3,000 Test runs including 400 in the current series. He also survived a convincing shout for lbw when Dawson was introduced into the attack for a single over just before lunch.

The score had reached 88 without loss at the interval before the Australian batsmen cut loose in the afternoon session, adding a further 147 runs. Hayden and Langer, drawing inspiration from one another, broke the ground record of 126 for an opening partnership in Australia-England Tests established in 1907/08 by Monty Noble and Victor Trumper.

When Hayden went to his hundred off 138 balls with a somewhat fortunate shot to the fine leg boundary, it was his third in the series and twelfth in Tests. He acknowledged the applause of a crowd in excess of 64,000 but perished 11 balls later when he was caught at mid-ff by Crawley off the bowling of Caddick.

Langer's hundred came up in three balls less than Hayden's as he took a six and a four off consecutive balls from Dawson. Not for him the nervous nineties as the man who has been forced to play second fiddle to his opening partner emerged in his own right. He displayed his composure when three wickets fell in relatively quick succession at the other end.

After he had lost his opening partner, Langer watched as Ricky Ponting chopped a ball from White onto his stumps and then, ten overs later, saw Damien Martyn edge a ball from the same bowler low to first slip where Marcus Trescothick held on to a good catch. That reduced Australia to 265 for three and there was a glimmer of hope for England.

That was extinguished by Langer and a defiant innings from Waugh. There has been much speculation that the Australian captain's international career is drawing to a close, but he obviously has other ideas. He did survive an awkward moment when it seemed that he had edged the sixth delivery with the new ball from Caddick low to Butcher at slip, but the third umpire ended lengthy deliberation in Waugh's favour.

His fifty came from only 49 balls and now he will want to at least double that personal tally before leading Australia to an unassailable first innings total. He and they are well on the way and England's depleted attack will not be looking forward to trying to stop them with any confidence.