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Match Analysis

Roll out the cold turkey, England's Christmas is cancelled

Another batting collapse at the MCG was proof that England have chosen the path of least resistance

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Joe Root leads his players off after another tough day, Australia vs England, 3rd Test, 1st day, MCG, December 26, 2021

Joe Root leads his players off after another tough day  •  Getty Images

First the good news. Of all of the 50 ducks that England's batters have now compiled in 12 months of bottom-feeding batting, their milestone dismissal was quite possibly the least-worst of the lot.
For each of his first eight deliveries at the MCG, Haseeb Hameed left the ball with poise and purpose. His feet were as grounded as he had chosen for them not to be during some ridicule-inducing one-legged drills in the nets prior to Christmas, and when Mitchell Starc completed his first over by whistling a brace of heatseekers over the top of his off stump, Hameed's unruffled raises of the bat spoke of a desire to be durable, to prove that "lessons had been learnt", as Joe Root had demanded at the end of England's abject Adelaide display.
But the illusion was not designed to last. It took the returning Pat Cummins all of three balls to find Hameed's edge with an outstanding seaming delivery that straightened on off stump to find the slenderest of nicks. And from that moment onwards, barely five minutes into England's final chance to keep the Ashes alive, the sound of Christmas being cancelled filled the UK airwaves. It's over, folks. Roll out the cold turkey.
If you were to quibble (as well you might on another day of festive humbug), you might argue that Hameed's stodgy footwork had been culpable in his early downfall. But then it's an open secret that his earnest approach is not ideally suited to the sort of thunderous combat encountered on Australian pitches. At the very least, as he traipsed off for his second 0 in as many innings, Hameed departed with the sense that his temperament remained intact, even as his technique continues to get ripped limb from limb.
Zak Crawley, England's second wicket of the opening half-hour's play, deserves a similar caveat - if only to acknowledge that his game, like Hameed's, has been eviscerated in the all-too-recent past. Here, at least, his innings of 12 improved his Test average for 2021 by 0.06 runs - but his year's grand total of 168 runs at 11.20 in 15 innings remains an equivalently awful return to the 170 first-class runs at 9.44 that Hameed racked up for Lancashire in 2018.
Given such weighty recent baggage, it was always wishful to think that either man could be remotely ready to front up on an Ashes tour, of all the destinations. But to pitch both of them into a must-win contest at the grandest colosseum in the game is a damning indictment of England's selection, England's resources and, moreover, England's desperation. Not since a palpably unready Mark Lathwell was burned alive in the spotlight of the 1993 Ashes has English cricket shown such self-immolating disregard for such promising young openers.
And so at 13 for 2, after 7.2 overs of unequal struggle, England found themselves clean out of excuses. Cummins bowled with majesty as he restated his pre-eminence in an attack that fared perfectly well without him in Adelaide, but Mitchell Starc was off-colour in his opening gambit and Scott Boland on debut was enthusiastic without truly threatening. There was still reason to believe that the less callow men in England's middle order could find the fight that had eluded their new-ball fall-guys, but what transpired was little short of a dereliction.
Dawid Malan at least had the excuse of being extracted by Test cricket's No.1 bowler, even if the timing of his snick to slip - right on the stroke of lunch - was crushing for a team that had fleetingly hoped to deny Australia the outright session honours, for arguably only the fourth time this series.
The rest, however, had nothing to fall back on, not even the put-upon Joe Root, whose eighth half-century in as many Tests in Australia ended with the most flaccid stroke of his otherwise hard-bitten campaign - a weak-willed dab outside off stump to Starc, as he found himself once again unable to wean himself off that favourite deflection down through the cordon. It's a shot that has kept his career tally ticking towards 10,000 runs but it comes with added jeopardy on Australia's springier surfaces. No matter how many fourth-stump drills he performs in the nets beforehand, there must come a point - as he now braces for a likely 12th defeat in 13 Tests in Australia - that he accepts that the risks of the shot in these conditions, notwithstanding the likelihood of being becalmed without it, have long since outweighed the rewards.
Talking of becalmed, that is where Ben Stokes' game now is, in a campaign in which he is now ticking along at a funereal strike-rate of 29.50, and has yet to reach 100 runs in the course of five innings. Stokes has more excuse than most for taking his time to adjust - he's still making up for lost time after six months in which he was unable to grip a bat without pain - but he's now faced more than 50 overs' worth of balls in the series, so really ought to be starting to make some worthier decisions.
This innings showed a few abortive attempts at proactivity, as he charged the quicks seemingly at random, and got cramped by the change of length on more than a few occasions. But the floppy uppercut with which he handed Cameron Green his latest prime scalp was unworthy of the man, and the match situation. England have spent long enough in the field this winter to realise that donations are few and far between when Australia's turn comes to bat. It beggars belief that such senior dressing-room figures are unable to set an example to match their angry rhetoric.
It's debatable, however, whether Jos Buttler still qualifies as a senior Test player after his latest brainfade. Not since David Gower stepped across his stumps at Adelaide in 1990-91 to launch Craig McDermott straight into the most transparent of leg traps has an Ashes dismissal on the stroke of an interval been accompanied by quite so much face-palming.
The re-introduction of Nathan Lyon, with minutes to go until tea, was a transparent act of carrot-dangling from Cummins - who sensed Buttler might seek to assert himself against a bowler who had England's number at Adelaide, but also realised a quick over of spin might burgle him one final over of seam before the clock ticked over. As it turned out, Lyon needed just two balls before Buttler rewarded him with a hapless hoick to the leg-side sweeper - another example of how scrambled his game-brain can get in Test cricket when presented with a choice between sticking and twisting. Buttler chose both and neither. England as a collective chose the path of least resistance, and sure enough, that resistance is all but over.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket