Ben Stokes stands between Australia and the inevitability of an Ashes series victory after another painful finish at the MCG.

Having bowled out Australia for 267, England appeared to be on course for their best day of a troubled series.

But a final hour which left them 31 for four, still 51 behind, left the tourists staring down the barrel of another defeat in the third test.

Stokes finished on two not out alongside captain Joe Root (12no) after Australia's pace attack removed openers Haseeb Hameed and Zak Crawley, plus Dawid Malan and nightwatchman Jack Leach in the space of 12 overs before stumps.

The Cumbrian all-rounder and Root remain England's last realistic chance of making a contest of it but the prospect of anything other than a series-sealing defeat now looks remote.

The final session saw Australia roared on by a delirious Melbourne crowd as Mitchell Starc came close to a hat-trick, removing Crawley and Malan with successive deliveries then fizzing the next past Root's outside edge.

Debutant Scott Boland removed Hameed and nightwatch Jack Leach in his first five balls.

England came close to losing more wickets amid a spell of near misses and unplayable balls.

With the tourists three down, England opted to send out Leach to spare Stokes the late examination, but the gamble backfired as the spinner left a ball on length but saw it clean up his off stump.

Earlier, with the start of play delayed after the news that two coaches and two family members in the touring party had tested positive for Covid-19, England had competed well with the ball, the impeccable Jimmy Anderton finishing with four for 33 while Mark Wood contributed two for 71.

In the first session Ollie Robinson accounted for Nathan Lyon early before Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith were dismissed cheaply.

Australia's last two wickets added 48 to the total, meaning England were facing a first-innings deficit of 81 - the Aussies then turning the screw with the ball.