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AUSTRALIA’S dream of an Ashes whitewash is alive and well despite the best efforts of a dogged, dramatic — and twice dropped — Kevin Pietersen in front of a world record crowd.
More than 91,000 walked through the turnstiles at the MCG for the first day of the Boxing Day Test and saw another superb performance from Australia’s bowlers, putting the brakes once again on the tentative tourists.
If they had come to see the fireworks of Mitchell Johnson that have destroyed England this summer they had to wait for it, though, with many in the ground already having left their seats by the time he took aim at a nervous visiting middle order with a barrage of short-pitched bowling late on Thursday.
While Ryan Harris was the standout Australian — he took 2-32 from 20 overs but watched three catches go down off his bowling, two of them from the blade of Pietersen — Johnson took advantage on a day in which Michael Clarke’s side had prospered by strangling England’s scoring rather than scaring their batsmen.
His two wickets with the second new ball left England, with Pietersen (67 not out) a lone ray of light, to resume at 6-226 after being sent in by Clarke.
While he raised the volume of the huge MCG crowd Johnson’s clean bowling of England’s new wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow (10) silenced another of his foes — the Barmy Army.
“They just finished telling us how shit he was bowling and just smacked back the off stump,” Harris said.
“We thought we’d let them know as a team. I think everyone in the slip cordon — and I was at leg gully — just turned around at them and gave them the thumbs up.”
England’s chances of posting a respectable total now rests with Pietersen, who fought off apparent illness in a four-hour innings in which he largely suppressed his attacking instincts. Called “a mug” by Geoffrey Boycott for throwing his wicket away during this series, he not only imitated the former England opener with a watchful display but also coincidentally passed him among the country’s leading Test run-scorers yesterday.
Of course, Pietersen could not entirely hold himself back but for once in this series for the 33-year-old fortune favoured the brave.
He was given the first of two lives in extraordinary fashion when, restricted to only six from his first 44 balls faced, he attempted to tear away the shackles against Harris.
His top-edged hook shot sailed into the orbit of Nathan Coulter-Nile, policing the boundary at deep backward square after replacing an injured Shane Watson.
Coulter-Nile did well to complete the grab but, not realising how close he was to the rope, he lost his balance as well as his bearings.
He flung the ball up, hoping to give it enough air time to allow him to safely catch it again with his feet firmly in play. Instead it careered into the Great Southern Stand.
“He was a bit sheepish when he came up to me,” Harris said.
“It’s one of those things. I’d rather him run in and have to go back than it not carry and him not make it.”
With the Test squad as a back-up quick Coulter-Nile is generally considered a very good fielder.
The same is usually said of George Bailey but he, too, put down Pietersen, when the England No. 4 was on 41.