When Australia’s captain Steven Smith suggested that Dawid Malan had been the pick of the England spinners in Perth, it was dismissed as “stirring” by Joe Root.
But, as the first day of the Boxing Day Test wore on, you wondered if Root wasn’t starting to come round to Smith’s way of thinking.
It wasn’t that Malan – a man with 14 first-class wickets in the last five years – looked especially dangerous. Oh, no. England aren’t setting the bar that high when it comes to spin bowling at present. It was simply that Root could rely on him to offer a semblance of control while his first-choice spinner, Moeen Ali, conceded almost a run-a-ball.
So while Malan, a bowler of gentle legspin, delivered his first six overs for just 13 runs and did not concede a boundary until his seventh over, Moeen went for 35 from the only six overs with which he was entrusted. Among those runs were four fours and a six.
If that doesn’t sound bad enough, it is worth reflecting on England’s tactics here. Accepting that they do not have the bite to dismiss Australia with an attacking approach, they have instead resolved to frustrate them. So, after a first session in which Australia (and David Warner in particular) thrashed 102 runs in 28 overs, England bowled with such control that the subsequent 71 overs realised only 142 runs and brought three wickets. It’s not a perfect ploy, for sure, but it may be the best they have available to them.
Moeen is struggling to fit into such a game plan. Unable to prevent batsmen hitting him over the top, he has his mid-on and mid-off too far back to stop singles. And while a captain might be able to live with that, the addition of the occasional horrid long-hop – there was one at the end of his first over here – or half-volley renders it almost impossible to set a field for him. He can be milked like a Friesian.
Stuart Broad, by comparison, also conceded four fours. But Broad, looking considerably better than he had in Perth, did so having delivered 13 more overs with only two of those boundaries coming after his first spell. James Anderson conceded five fours in 21 overs but none in his final 12. Together they frustrated Australia and made them work hard for nearly every run. Moeen threatened to release that pressure so forced the seamers into longer, more frequent spells.
There were caveats earlier in the tour. The side strain sustained on the first day of training robbed him of the opportunity to gain the bowling he required ahead of the first Test, while the cut finger sustained in Brisbane robbed him of the ability to give the ball much of a tweak. Even on Christmas Day he took a blow on the left wrist that put his inclusion in jeopardy here.
But we can’t keep making excuses. England have been in Australia for two months now. And in this Test series Moeen has claimed three wickets at a cost of 117 each while his Australian counterpart, Nathan Lyon, has taken 14 at 26.07. If he’s not taking wickets – and this was a day crying out for his long-forgotten doosra – or offering control, it’s not really working as a selection.
Moeen is not, of course, the first spinner to struggle in Australia. Since 1990, bowlers with reputations as high as Muttiah Muralitharan (who averaged 75.41 per wicket) and Harbhajan Singh (73.22) have struggled here. Last year Yasir Shah took his wickets at a cost of 84 apiece. All three of them actually conceded more runs per over than Moeen’s rate of 3.44, though that may be as they continued to bowl a heavy volume of overs. This was the first day of the Test, too, and it is not so long since Moeen was Man of the Series for his bowling against South Africa. He has earned the extended run he is receiving and it is not as if there are obvious alternatives demanding selection.
But Moeen is not contributing with the bat, either. He has made 38 runs from his last four innings combined and is averaging 19.33 in the series. For perhaps the first time in his career, neither skill is mitigating for the struggles in the other. As a consequence, his place looks more precarious than it as for some time. He needs a performance, either here or in Sydney.
Would it have been different if Mason Crane had been selected? Or if Samit Patel had been brought along as a support spinner and strong middle-order batting option? Of course it might. But Crane, unsurprisingly for a 20-year-old legspinner, bowls his share of boundary balls, too, and, on the evidence of this tour (where he has claimed five first-class wickets at a cost of 58.20 apiece), he would be equally unable to play the part of containing bowler in England’s attritional attack. And while he is an improving batsman, his highest first-class score is 29 and he would go in no higher than No. 9. As a result, he would further add to a tail that already has a hint of diplodocus about it.
Crane might be an indirect victim of the Ben Stokes debacle. Had Stokes been available, England would have had greater allrounder cover to enable them to take a risk in selecting a young legspinner. It is so hard to balance the side in Stokes’ absence, however, that Crane has been left on the sidelines.
But might this not have offered an ideal opportunity to try new players and new approaches? They series is lost, after all. So why are England still playing safe? Having spent an average of 160 overs in the field in the opposition’s first innings of their most recent eight away Tests, it seems fair to conclude that the current approach isn’t really working. Perhaps it was worth abandoning the attrition and attempting the attack?
Whether this pitch offers any options other than attrition may become more apparent when Pat Cummins and co bowl on it. On the evidence of the first day it looked a disappointing slow, low wicket that did nothing to encourage bright and positive cricket.
Whether the tastes of modern life have any room for attrition as entertainment is open to debate. It does seem cricket – well, Test cricket, anyway – missed an opportunity here, though. With almost 90,000 people in the ground, a fair number of them young and attending, perhaps, their first such day of cricket, there was a chance to win them over to the sport for a lifetime. Instead this wicket will have risked putting them off for a lifetime. Really, pitches like this do nothing for Test cricket’s future.
“You’d think the 90,000 people that turned up don’t want to see 244 for three,” Anderson said afterwards. “People want to see entertaining cricket, especially in an iconic Test like the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. People want to see exciting cricket.
“It wasn’t exciting to watch. It wasn’t exciting to play in, to be honest, when it’s attritional like that. But that’s the pitch that we’ve got, and we’ve got to put up with it.”
The paying spectator doesn’t, though. And in a city like Melbourne, with its park and beaches and shopping and countless other attractions, Test cricket has to do better if it wants to remain relevant. The crowd left in its droves long before the end. It would be complacent to presume they’ll all be back.