“I have two hundreds from two games at The Oval, so it’s a place I like batting”, said a chuffed Steve Smith after winning the man-of-the-match award in an Ashes securing victory at Old Trafford. At The Oval on Friday, he once again displayed how much he loves to bat staying in the middle for more than four hours while the others faltered around him.
The day began with a couple of milestones for the Australians - one welcomed while the other one was not. Mitchell Marsh dismissed Jack Leach to grab his first five-wicket haul in Test cricket and bundle out England for 294, a score made possible only after a breezy knock of 70 runs off 98 balls from Jos Buttler. Later, the struggling opener, David Warner was dismissed for only five. This was Warner’s eighth single-digit score in this series, the most by any opener in a series.
This time, however, Warner survived the first over scare from Stuart Broad but got out chasing a wide delivery from Jofra Archer in the Barbados-born’s first over. The dismissal, though, raised question marks over the validity of the ultra-edge. The replays showed daylight between the bat and the ball but an unforeseen spike on the ultra-edge meant the southpaw had to take the long walk back to the pavillion.
Marcus Harris also could not stay for long, edging Archer to Ben Stokes at the second slip, and the eternal struggle for the openers in the series continued.
But then, it was the turn of Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith, two of the most influential batsmen in the series. The pair seemed unperturbed and looked on course to bat England out of the game again. Although, Sam Curran, coming back into the side troubled Steve Smith. He continuously threatened to go through Smith’s legs, giving impressions that he will achieve the uphill task of beating Smith’s inside edge with his in-swingers but the story remained the same. It was only a false impression. The right-handed batsman again found a way to survive. Smith and Labuschagne remained unseparated at lunch with the score reading 55 for two.
Labuschagne appeared to be more fluent before Archer struck him on his pads sending the right-hander back two short of his fifth fifty of the series. Matthew Wade, whose hundred in the Edgbaston Test feels like a distant memory now, seemed fluent in his brief partnership with Smith. He eventually fell lbw to Curran’s in-swinger for 19. Marsh, who had begun his day completing a memorable five-wicket haul also could not last long and mistimed a pull shot straight into Leach’s hands at fine-leg for 17.
Australia slumped down to 160 for five. It does not seem so bad compared to England’s 176 for five a day earlier but this is where the difference hs lied for both teams so far in this Test match. England had Buttler to carry them over to 294 after a lower-middle order collapse while Australia, despite having potent batsmen in Tim Paine and Pat Cummins could not find support for Smith.
Both the batsmen were sent back by Sam Curran off back to back deliveries. He first sent the ball across Paine inducing an outside edge and then defeated Cummins of a beautiful inswinger wrapping him in front of the stumps. With three wickets to his name, the left-arm seamer had shown why England missed a trick by not picking for any of the first four Tests.
Moments later, the event the whole of England had been waiting for finally unfolded. After facing 1,142 balls in the series, Steve Smith was finally beaten off his inside edge in front of the stumps. Chris Woakes achieved the impossible dismissing Steve Smith leg before wicket. By then, the former Aussie skipper had reached 80, taken his tally of runs in the series to 751 and notched up his tenth fifty-plus score in a row against England - a world record.
But his departure at the score of 187 meant Australia was certain to concede a lead. Nathan Lyon came out with a surprisingly attacking instinct hitting four fours and one six on his way to 25.
Archer, coming back into his fourth spell finally put an end to the Lyon madness with an excellent knuckle delivery targeting the stumps. The dismissal marked his second five-wicket haul in the series. He later turned it to his second six-wicket haul in the series when four balls later, Rory Burns snaffled a stunning one-handed catch at fourth slip ending Peter Siddle’s resilient knock of 18 that spanned over an hour.
Australia were knocked out for 225 conceding a lead of 69 and some self-belief to England despite retaining the Ashes.
The England openers, Rory Burns and Joe Denly stretched England’s lead to 78 by stumps but it did not come easy against the four-over burst from Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Burns was struck on the helmet by a bouncer from Cummins. The last over the day saw Denly’s outside edge spilled by Marcus Harris at gully, the third drop of the day, an uncanny similarity from the first day’s play (Smith was dropped by Root on 66 and Lyon was dropped by Leach on 16).
England is 78 ahead with all their 10 wickets in hand. The rapid fall of wickets which saw 20 wickets in two day’s play suggest Australia are still not out of the game. One big obstacle they face is the fact that they will be batting in the fourth innings of the Test match, something they are yet to do in the series. Tim Paine and the Australian management must be pondering if they made a mistake by bowling first after winning the toss.