Runs for England and Australia chasing the ball around the field - these were the two prominent aspects of the third day’s play at The Oval. For someone who has followed the series from the beginning, these two events seemed improbable in the series. Runs have been hard to come by and when they have, it has mostly been the Australian batsmen, Steve Smith to be precise, who have put their willow to good use. On Saturday, however, the tables turned and the English batsmen made the Aussies run around for most parts of the day.
Before the start of day’s play, the third day of The Oval Test had seen a dismissal rate of 76.1 balls per wicket, the highest amongst all days of play in a Test at the venue since 2015. Statistically, England had the best of batting conditions in the Test match and they made full use of it. Rory Burns and Joe Denly brought up the first 50-run opening stand in the series from either sides before the former fell to a lose stroke to Nathan Lyon. Frustration continued to maul Joe Root who went through a tame dismissal handing an easy catch to Smith at first slip off a straight delivery from Lyon.
England were 88 for two at lunch. Nathan Lyon, Australia’s premier spinner had struck twice but with the lead stretched to 157 and with the pitch hardly showing any demons, Australia did not seem like creating an impact in the game. Denly, who was dropped by Marcus Harris in the last over of the second day’s play, stayed unbeaten at 37 with Ben Stokes joining him in the middle.
A number of drop catches have been witnessed in this Test match but none has proved more costly than Smith spilling Ben Stokes’ catch. It was a straight-forward catch but gave Smith little time to react as the ball travelled fast from Stokes’ outside edge off Lyon. Batting on seven at that moment, Stokes raced his way to 67 runs off 115 balls providing England the much needed acceleration to press their foot on the visitor’s throat. Moments after the drop catch, Australia failed to challenge umpire Marais Erasmus’ not out call against Denly who was then batting 54. Replays suggested Erasmus would be forced to overturn his decision when the ball-tracker showed the ball cannoning into the leg stump.
Both the aforementioned moments cost Australia heavily. Denly was eventually dismissed for 94 and Stokes was castled by Lyon for 67 but by then, the duo had added 127 runs off 220 balls for the third wicket leaving too much catching up to do for the Aussies.
The wickets kept falling later on, but it was too little and too late for the visitors. A 27-run stand for the fifth wicket between Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler and a 30-run stand between Buttler and Sam Curran for the sixth wicket followed by a 26-run stand between Buttler and Chris Woakes for the seventh wicket saw England pip the 300-run mark in the innings. Buttler, the top-scorer of the first innings once again played a punishing knock. He scored 47 off 63 balls with the help of six boundaries which included a couple of glorious off-drives against Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood in successive overs.
Like that of Denly and Stokes’ innings, Aussies had a great chance to end Buttler’s knock without letting it prosper but once again, Tim Paine looked to cautious to challenge the on-field umpire’s decision when Nathan Lyon struck Buttler’s pads in front of the stumps. The ball-tracker once again showed the ball hitting the leg stump and once again, questions were raised against Paine’s ability to go upstairs.
A couple of stupendous fielding efforts towards the end of day’s proceedings - Smith emulating Rory Burns’ one handed stunner at second slip to end Woakes’ stay at the crease followed by Labuschagne diving forward to pluck Buttler’s top-edge - did lift the visitors’ spirit but with an uphill task of batting fourth in the Test having already conceded a lead of 382 runs made it England’s day.
Australia’s hopes rest heavily on Smith once again. The Australian bowlers, however, still have unfinished business with England keeping two wickets in hand - one of which is Jack Leach, the bespectacled tailender who has averaged higher than every England top-order batsman except Stokes in this English summer.