A pitch that saps Australia's will to win

On the third night of the 2010 Melbourne Test, Shane Watson spoke frankly of losing the Ashes the night before the result was consummated by an England team doing Graeme Swann's "sprinkler" dance. Typical of Watson's honestly, it is also the exception that proves the rule - almost unheard of for an Australian team to stop discussing the prospect of winning a Test match until it has run deeply towards a conclusion.

Famously, the 2006 Adelaide Test remained alive in the mind and words of Shane Warne, even as other teammates doubted the possibility. That eventual triumph came to symbolise Warne's aggressive, indomitable attitude in the mind of his pupil Michael Clarke, and he was to lead his team to a somewhat lower profile victory over the odds at Barbados in 2012. Clarke, of course, took these kinds of things to extremes, no more so than when denying outright the possibility of his retirement right up until the moment he actually announced it, in Nottingham in 2015.

Given these examples, it was truly jarring to hear Australia's coach Darren Lehmann effectively rule out the possibility of a victory for the hosts over England in this match as early as the same third night that Watson had spoken. Lehmann's pronouncement, accounting even for a token "never say never" homily, was uncharacteristically humble from the mentor of a team that until the day before was still open to the prospect of a 5-0 sweep of Joe Root's Englishmen.

"It's tough to see any other scenario other than a draw or England win," Lehmann said. "It's going to take us a long time to get past them, to be perfectly honest. So really our job is to bat a lot of overs and do exactly what they've just done to us. You never say never, but we're a long way behind in the game. For us it's about batting as long as we possibly can and see where the game takes us."

At that point Australia were 164 runs behind with one wicket to take, and day four's afternoon showers were as yet just a looming prognostication from the Bureau of Meteorology. It was a better scenario, for instance, than the one faced after two days at Port Elizabeth in 1997, when South Africa went to stumps ahead by 184 runs with 10 wickets in hand on a decidedly difficult strip for batting. But the tone of Lehmann's message had more to do with the character of the MCG pitch than the actual gap between the sides. Quick play, whether it be fast scoring or the rapid fall of wickets, is not easily achieved without the outright assistance of the opposition. Attrition is all, and by that logic Lehmann did not see enough time left in the game.

That attitude was certainly evident when the Australians batted after James Anderson's first ball dismissal. England bowled tightly and gained reverse swing as early as the 10th over, but equally the hosts declined to give too much away in terms of unduly eager shot play. This was most evident in the approach of David Warner, who since the lunch break on Boxing Day has reverted to a far more measured, even defensive mode of batting, underlining a level of versatility that not even he thought he had in years gone by.

As Mitchell Marsh described it: "The game scenario and the way he batted today was really important for us. Batting against the new ball in the first innings it was a really good time to bat and the way he batted was beautiful, it was a great hundred. Hopefully he can go out there with the same mentality tomorrow as he showed today and bat all day for us. He's one of the best batsmen in the world so it was great to see him bat the way he did for the team."

Marsh, of course, had been part of the rush of wickets on the second morning that allowed Alastair Cook and England to dictate terms. Having left runs out in the middle during the first innings, it was all too apparent that neither Warner nor the captain Steven Smith were prepared to be as generous this time around, creating something of a Mexican stand-off with England's bowlers in the 22.4 overs they were together before the rain arrived. A scoring rate of 1.67 per over was no-one's idea of entertainment, even if it was possible to admire the challenge posed by Anderson in particular.

"On a wicket like this the game just moves a lot slower," Marsh said. "As a batsman you've got to be prepared to bat a long period of time and face a lot of balls to get your runs, because the ball is not coming on overly well and there's a lot of fielders in front of you on a wicket like this. You've got to be prepared to bat for long periods of time.

"I think there's been three draws in Shield cricket here this year, hopefully there's another one tomorrow. There's not really much in it for anyone really unless you can get the ball reverse swinging a lot, and teams haven't been able to do that either."

Australia, then, are no fans of this MCG surface, and given they have been unable to engineer a position from which to put England under pressure, are not exactly in the mood to let the tourists gain a consolation win due to the home side's inattention or impatience. In that sense this match is not dissimilar to the high scoring encounter between Australia and India in 2014, when Smith elected not to give MS Dhoni's team a realistic final day chase because he did not wish to be generous in a way that the pitch was not.

"Australia have had remarkably few thoughts about winning this Test. Far more have been entertained by the thought of digging up the MCG pitch"

Trevor Bayliss, England's coach, said that while victory was a possibility for his side, it would have to be achieved by a very long and narrow road. "We've got to be very disciplined. There's not a lot you can do on that type of wicket, you've got to bowl reasonably straight and good lengths and wait for a mistake," he said. "Yes we can try a few things, but two very good batters.

"If we can get the ball in the right areas and put pressure on, the odd ball stays a little bit low or holds up a bit, we've got to have the fielders in the right spot to take that chance. If we can get rid of those two guys early on tomorrow and put some pressure on the opposition late order batters, anything's possible."

These are the optimistic views of a team that has also had to contend with the MCG's stingy surface - there is little love for it on either side, even if Alastair Cook will always remember this match fondly. Complaints about the surface, and others like it around the world, are far from a partisan thing. "Look at it from a fan's point of view," Bayliss said. "You want a wicket with a bit more pace in it.

"I think both teams, even from a batting point of view, have struggled to time the ball, not quite coming on even as batters would like. I'm sure the bowlers would like a little bit more pace in the wicket as well so things happen a little bit quicker. It makes things on the whole better cricket, batting and bowling-wise."

Australia, then, have had remarkably few thoughts about winning this Test. Far more have been entertained by the thought of digging up the MCG pitch and starting again. In that respect, they are far from alone.