AUSTRALIA’S national cricket team seems to swing from bad to good to bad in the space of a few weeks or sometimes even a week. The team was thrashed in the second Test of the ongoing Ashes series, bounced back to win the third by 267 runs, and today, the first day of the fourth Test, was bowled out for 98.
Yes 98, the lowest score at the MCG for an Ashes Test. Australia was bowled out for 83 by India in 1981 at the MCG and has been dismissed for scores below 120 in home Tests four times since 1990.
At the close of play, England is 59 runs ahead with all its wickets intact. A miracle is required for Australia not to lose this Test and with only sporadic showers forecast for one remaining day of the Test, even the weather can be counted out as a saviour.
But why do these dramatic swings of fortune take place? In Perth, Mitchell Johnson bowled very well, aided by a pitch that was helpful to fast bowlers. The scores were not high – the highest innings total was 309 by Australia in its second innings. England made one run more than this in both its innings combined.
Johnson managed to produce quite dramatic late swing which brought him a number of wickets; he took nine in all for the match. Elated by his success, this was put down to changes in his action. Nobody factored in the easterly wind that blows in Perth and tends to make the ball swing. Nobody also thought about the fact that Perth is an open ground, allowing the wind to sweep over it, not a cauldron like the MCG, venue for the fourth Test, where the imposing structure prevents any wind from sweeping through.
Everyone expected Johnson to repeat his heroics. A little less was expected from the other hero of Perth, Ryan Harris, who also took nine wickets, though a number of them came after England had thrown in the towel in its second innings and had resigned itself to defeat.
Neither bowler has been able to do a thing on the MCG track. And when you have only 98 to defend, you need wickets fast to put pressure on the opposition. Skipper Ricky Ponting, who is likely to lose the captaincy if the series is lost, gave Johnson three overs but saw the paceman leak 17 runs. As the England batsmen kept scoring steadily, Ponting fell back on the more economical bowlers.
Whenever Australia is caught on a wicket where the opposition can make the ball move sideways, its batsmen stand exposed. They do not know which ball to leave and which to hit. They dab at balls that can be well left alone; only Mike Hussey seems to know where his stumps are. But today, Hussey also failed; by the law of averages he was due a low score, having scored more than 500 runs in the series to date.
One of Australia’s openers lacks technique (Phillip Hughes) and the other is a makeshift opener (Shane Watson) who would be much more comfortable batting at six. Ponting is no longer the best batsman in the side and therefore should not be at one-drop. But his deputy, Michael Clarke, cannot handle the pressure of the one-drop and hence bats at four.
After the success of Perth, Australia chose to go into the MCG Test with four pacemen, the first time in decades that the country has played without a regular spinner at this ground. It appears that Ponting was ready to insert the opposition if he won the toss and had picked four pacemen for that reason. Given that one only has a 50 percent chance of winning a toss, it looks as though the Australian captain had left his brains at home.
Even if Australia manages to pull the chestnuts out of the fire in this Test and go to the final Sydney Test level at 1-1, it is unlikely to win the series. As the holders of the Ashes, England only needs to draw the series in order to carry that precious little urn back home again. The prospect of rain affecting the game in Sydney is very high, given the existing weather patterns.