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The bewitching hour: Starc, Cummins, Boland, and a spell to remember for the MCG crowd

After another forgettable year for Melburnians, 12 pulsating overs by the Australia quicks was something to savour

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Scott Boland received the sort of cheer from the MCG crowd that was reserved for Merv Hughes in his heyday  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

Scott Boland received the sort of cheer from the MCG crowd that was reserved for Merv Hughes in his heyday  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

Test batting doesn't get any harder. Test cricket doesn't get any more compelling.
In one glorious hour, in one of world cricket's great amphitheatres, on a day of Test cricket threatened by Covid-19, in the world's most locked-down city, the MCG, which has been silent for almost two years, found its voice again as Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Scott Boland delivered a brutal, pulsating spell of fast bowling, the equal of any, to put England on their knees again.
A crowd of 42,626 sounded like double that number as Starc went within millimetres of a Test hat-trick and England slumped to 7 for 2. That soon became 22 for 4 when local hero Boland got in on the act, striking twice in his first over, the second last of the day. England finished 31 for 4, 51 runs behind with just six wickets in hand in their second innings trying to avoid a 3-0 series defeat inside 12 days of cricket.
England will lament their batting woes, but Australia's attack is ruthless and irrepressible. The sheer quality of the fast bowling on display was something to behold, and the cacophony that accompanied it made it appear gladiatorial. Except this wasn't a fair fight, it was lambs to the slaughter.
Cummins nearly took Haseeb Hameed's head off with his first ball, Hameed fending it in hope just over David Warner in the slips.
Cummins made mincemeat of Zak Crawley. Every ball was a step in a slow torturous march towards an inevitable conclusion. A legcutter nipped past the groping edge. An offcutter thundered into the thigh pad. Another one cut him in half. He survived one nick, as Alex Carey opted not to dive in front of first slip for the second time in two Tests and it clean bowled Warner on the half-volley for four desperately needed runs.
At the other end, Starc's searing pace whistled past Hameed's low hands time and again. England's two youngest batters were rabbits in the headlights, all hands and no feet, hopelessly trying to survive as every ball seemed to have one of their names on it.
The crowd sensed the moment. Starc gave them what they came for. A perfectly pitched delivery that threatened to shape in and held the line scratched Crawley's outside edge and handed Carey a simple catch. Dawid Malan entered the cauldron and departed one ball later. Another 140kph missile darted in off the seam and thundered into the pads. Umpire Paul Wilson went up with the 40,000-strong appeal. Malan reviewed in hope, ball-tracking sided with the umpire to have it clipping the top of the leg stump.
England's talisman, Joe Root, walked out with the weight of a nation on his shoulders again. Starc's hat-trick ball was as good as anything he's faced in this series, full and threatening to shape back into off and zipping away at the last moment to beat the edge by a hair's breadth.
The threats kept coming. Hameed was hit twice on the pad by Cummins, but the steep bounce in the MCG track saved him on both occasions. Starc continued to torment Root. He edged one between third slip and gully. He edged another short of Carey, who dived full length to his right this time.
Respite finally appeared to have come in the 11th over when Boland replaced Starc. No chance. The Victorian sent the home fans into raptures as Hameed nicked a peach to Carey to end a tortured 31-ball 7. Jack Leach was sent out as nightwatchman but he nearly played on first ball from Boland and then allowed the second to hit the top of off stump.
The frenzied Melburnians were restless and vociferous, hungry for another victim, as Ben Stokes took an eternity to emerge from the bowels of the MCG to face the final ball of the over. Boland received a standing ovation from Bay 13, much like those reserved for Merv Hughes in his heyday, as the Australians sprinted around to allow Cummins six more balls.
Root was beaten again and then forced to wait, as the opposing skipper sensed the mood, pausing for an age before the final ball to let the crowd noise crescendo as they thumped their hands on anything within reach.
But Root kept it out. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, England were in control of just 44 of the 72 balls bowled in the final hour. At the ground, it felt like it was just two: Root's final straight drive for three only bettered by a stunning off-drive off Cummins to get off the mark.
"That was absolutely bouncing," Marcus Harris said after play. "For 40,000 it felt like there was 100,000. When Starcy was on a hat-trick, it was unbelievable. And then when Scotty Boland ran down to Bay 13 at the end then after those two wickets in the over, that was brilliant. That was a great atmosphere. That is something you dream of as a kid to be a part of."
James Anderson was left in awe of what the Australian quicks had produced. "I thought the spell from Starc and Cummins was outstanding," Anderson said. "But that's what you expect. They're world-class bowlers. They've done it in Test cricket for many, many years. So it shouldn't take anyone by surprise that they bowl like that. And it's just disappointing to lose four wickets in that period."
It was another forgettable hour on another forgettable tour for England. But after another forgettable year for Melburnians, one pulsating hour of cricket was something to savour.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo