Ashes third Test preview: Wounded England look to strike back against dominant Australia with series hanging in the balance

England face Australia in a series-defining third Test at the iconic MCG in Melbourne on Boxing Day - can they finally find some form Down Under, or will the hosts be dominant once again?

By George Mills Published: 23 December 2021 - 12.13pm

Well… the only way is up, right?

After following up a nine-wicket defeat in the first Test with an emphatic 275 run loss in the second Test, it surely can’t get much worse for England in their quest to regain The Ashes from Australian rule.

That may be one of the only positives to take from two miserable performances from the tourists so far this December – but the series is far from over yet.

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We head to the iconic MCG in Melbourne for the third Test with England trailing 2-0, beaten but not broken, and three Tests left to play.

Beginning shortly before midnight on Christmas Day in the UK, the Boxing Day Test is arguably the most iconic event on the Australian sporting calendar and is expected to draw huge crowds once again at the 100,000 capacity venue.

England will be hoping they can summon the spirit of 2010, where they beat Australia on this very ground by an innings and 157 runs, as they look to claw themselves back into the series following a second successive thrashing.

As far-fetched as that may seem at this point, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that England can pose a threat to their hosts at the MCG with the pitch shaping up to be a seamer-friendly surface.

That will be a welcome development for captain Joe Root and head coach Chris Silverwood who have often selected four seamers at the expense of a specialist spinner, just as they did in the Second Test, during their tenure together.

“We did it four years ago and didn't learn from it - we have to be better”
- Joe Root

However, speaking after England’s heavy defeat in Adelaide last week, Root aimed criticism at his bowling attack, calling on his side to be “braver” with their lengths and pitch the ball up.

"We needed to bowl fuller," Root said.

"As soon as we did in the second innings, we created chances. That's frustrating. We did it four years ago and didn't learn from it - we have to be better.

"We talk about what length to bowl all the time.

"We look at the data, what's going to hit the stumps on each surface. It's well communicated, but it's not always as simple as that and people get caught up in the emotion of the game."

If the MCG does present England with conditions more suited to their best bowling line-up, there’s no doubt that they have the weaponry to make inroads into the Australian batting line-up.

Stalwarts James Anderson and Stuart Broad are masters of seaming conditions, while Ollie Robinson’s continued development has shown him capable of causing problems.

Paceman Mark Wood’s absence was keenly felt in Adelaide with the Durham man rested for the second Test but the 31-year-old should be back in the reckoning for a recall in Melbourne.

“We've talked in depth about how things can get better”
- Mark Wood

Wood revealed the team had held an honest inquest into their performance last time out, telling reporters this week: "Stokesy [Ben Stokes] and Joe Root spoke to the group about… basically a bit of a kick up the bum saying 'this isn't good enough'," Wood said.

"We've talked in depth about how things can get better. Not just words or cliched words, we actually set out what we're going to do in Melbourne practice-wise, what we're going to do differently."

England are likely to make several changes to try and kick start their Ashes campaign with the likes of Rory Burns, Ollie Pope and Chris Woakes the prime candidates to make way in the event of a reshuffle.

Opener Zak Crawley could come in at the top of the order with Jonny Bairstow, Jack Leach and Wood also pushing for recalls to the first XI.

From an Australian perspective, head coach Justin Langer will be delighted with the ferocity of his side’s start to the series.

Despite losing captain Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, the team’s two best bowlers, ahead of the second Test – and in Cummins’ case only hours before the start of play – the Aussies have not missed a beat.

In came Jhye Richardson, who picked up an impressive five-for in the second innings, and debutant Michael Neser, who took two wickets in the match during a solid start to life as a Baggy Green.

"The beauty of Australian cricket at the moment is we've got fast-bowling stocks for days," Richardson said after his stellar performance in Adelaide.

"I think that's a wonderful problem for the selectors and JL [Justin Langer] to have. Whatever happens, happens.

“I had an unfortunate first innings and then bowled a little bit better second innings. I'm happy to go either way. As long as we're winning, then that's all we can ask for."

Hazlewood is expected to miss out in Melbourne once again while he recovers from a side strain picked up during the first Test but Cummins, who missed out in Adelaide after being required to isolate for seven days, will return to skipper the side.

2010
England's only victory at the MCG in the last five Ashes tours

That leaves a selection headache for he and coach Langer to work out over the coming days but the feeling is that Richardson may have done enough during his impressive return to Test cricket following a three-year absence to retain his place.

If there were to be a question mark over any facet of the Australian team right now, it is the form of opener Marcus Harris.

The 29-year-old has posted scores of 3, 9*, 3 and 23 so far this series and averages just 10.66 against England, as per figures from Cricviz.

“In the history of Test cricket, 134 openers have batted 10 times against England - none average less than Harris,” Cricviz tweeted earlier this week.

All the noises from Down Under seem to suggest Harris will retain his place once again for the third Test but another poor showing from the Perth man could see his Ashes come to an end before New Year.

It promises to be a fascinating Test at one of the world’s most iconic cricket arenas as England look to ruin the festive period for their Australian hosts.

Can the Three Lions roar back into form at the third time of asking – or will the Aussies ensure the urn remains out of reach for another two years?

Watch all the action from 10.30pm on Christmas Day as the Third Test gets underway exclusively live on BT Sport 1 HD.