MELBOURNE, (Reuters) – England seized control of the Ashes today by skittling Australia for 98, a record low for the hosts in Melbourne, and building a lead of 59 runs without loss at the close of the first day’s play in the fourth test.
England’s seamers scythed through Australia’s top order before lunch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, then rattled through their last six wickets for the loss of only 40 runs before tea to stun the crowd of more than 84,000.
England openers Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook rubbed salt in the hosts’ wounds by surviving more than three hours to stumps, profiting from sunny afternoon conditions that tamed a pitch that earlier proved a handful for Australia’s batsmen.
Strauss was on 64 and Cook 80 at stumps, raising England’s hopes of taking the Ashes home for the first time in 24 years.
“At no point did we get carried away, even when they were six down, seven down,” paceman James Anderson, who took 4-44 from 16 overs, told reporters.
“We just kept going and did what we were trying to do, create pressure.”
Anderson said early conditions had helped England’s cause.
“There was definitely some movement. The grass that was on the pitch did help and the overcast conditions helped it swing as well,” he added.
“We’ve had one good day, one great day, but there’s still four days of hard work left.
“We’ve got a huge job with the bat because we’ve seen the last two sessions how flat the pitch is getting so we know how hard it’s going to be to get 10 Australian wickets to win this game.”
The five-test series is tied at 1-1 and holders England need only to win in Melbourne to be the first team to retain the Ashes on Australian soil since Mike Gatting’s side in 1986/87.
Australia’s paltry total eclipsed their previous lowest of 104 against their opponents at the MCG in the inaugural match of England’s first test tour of Australia in 1876-77. The hosts won that test by 45 runs.
Paceman Chris Tremlett finished with 4-26 in another strong display after coming back into the side at Perth, while Tim Bresnan, who replaced Steve Finn in the side, took 2-25.
England captain Strauss won the toss and sent Australia into bat on a moist, grassy pitch that offered swing and varying bounce from the first ball on an overcast morning.
The hosts’ top order has been brittle throughout the series and they surrendered their first four wickets for just 58 runs.
Tremlett and Bresnan removed openers Shane Watson (five) and the struggling Phillip Hughes (16) respectively, the latter gifting his wicket with a miscued cut that flew straight to Kevin Pietersen at gully.
Australia captain Ricky Ponting’s woeful series with the bat continued as he was out for 10, edging Tremlett to Graeme Swann in the slips.
Mike Hussey, forced into the role of rescuer throughout the series, had his brilliant run of half-centuries ended by Anderson just before lunch, nicking to wicketkeeper Matt Prior for eight.
A rain shower that brought lunch five minutes early and delayed the second session by 45 minutes compounded Australia’s misery as the ball continued to skid and lift at turns in the early afternoon.
Anderson struck twice shortly after lunch, removing Steve Smith for six and Michael Clarke for 20, both caught behind by Prior with similar deliveries that swung late.
Wicketkeeper Brad Haddin then flashed at Bresnan, his flat-footed drive flying straight to Strauss at first slip, sparking England’s ecstatic “Barmy Army” into renditions of “God Save the Queen”.
Anderson’s dismissal of paceman Mitchell Johnson for a duck was England’s third without a run conceded after lunch, as Australia crashed from 77-5 to 77-8.
Australia’s tail added another 21 runs, with Peter Siddle’s 11 finishing the third-highest score of the innings.
With the afternoon sunshine drying out the pitch, Cook and Strauss were rarely tested by Australia’s seamers.
Cook, who scored a match-saving double-century in Brisbane but failed twice in Perth, raised his half-century by cutting a loose delivery from Johnson for four in the 32nd over.
Strauss reached his half-century five overs later, tucking a single off part-time legspinner Smith to deep mid-on.
Johnson had sparked Australia’s 267-run win in Perth with a match-winning six-wicket haul but was hit for 11 runs off his first over and finished with unflattering figures of 0-42 off seven overs.
The talismanic paceman, so often the barometer of Australia’s fortunes, sent one delivery flying wide past keeper Haddin on the way to the boundary to encapsulate the hosts’ struggles.
With Australia’s batsmen embarrassed and their pace attack thwarted, spectators deserted the 100,000-capacity stadium in droves, leaving their bowlers to toil fruitlessly in front of rows of empty seats for the last hour.
Vice captain Michael Clarke, who has reached 50 only once in the series, said Australia’s batsmen were guilty of poor shot selection but said there was a long way to go.
“Obviously a tough day today, but fortunately there’s four days left in this test match so I think it’s really important that we come out tomorrow and show our intent,” he said.
“I think the forecast is for overcast conditions tomorrow, so that’s be nice to turn up tomorrow morning to get this ball swinging around a little bit and hold onto a few catches. We have to turn up ready to go tomorrow to take 10 wickets.”