Australia on course for world title despite fielding woes against India
Australia look set to begin the Ashes as Test world champions as they made light of missed opportunities to move into a winning position on day three against India.
With a week to go until their series opener against rivals England, Australia pressed home their advantage in the World Test Championship final as they stretched their advantage to 296 by the close of play.
Australia may not have been at their ruthless best at the Oval, allowing three chances to go down in the morning session and seeing captain Pat Cummins denied his second wicket of the match for a front-foot no-ball, but their quality shone through regardless.
Even with their profligacy in the field they were able to bowl their opponents out for 296 – a lead of 173 – before making their way to 123 for four at stumps.
Cameron Green also offered a pointed riposte to any concerns over their catching, leaping to grab a one-handed stunner after lunch to see off India’s top-scorer Ajinkya Rahane (89).
Australia’s first-innings centurions Steve Smith and Travis Head both fell to spinner Ravindra Jadeja but the world’s number one ranked batter, Marnus Labuschagne, spent valuable time in the middle as he made 41 not out.
India began the day on 151 for five and had a nightmare start when Scott Boland’s scattered Srikar Bharat’s stumps with the second ball of the day. That left India 317 behind with just four wickets in hand but despite a relentless attacking effort from the bowlers, that proved the only breakthrough of the morning.
Boland came within inches of striking a second time in the opening over, snaring a thick edge from Shardul Thakur, but the leaping Usman Khawaja was unable to gather a chance that squirmed free.
Thakur needed plenty of steel to stick around, requiring lengthy treatment after being hit three times by Cummins in a single over – wearing blows on the forearm, wrist and glove. Having softened him up, the seamer should have got his rewards when Thakur sprayed a chance to gully but this time Green’s handiwork let him down.
With Thakur in a state of almost permanent peril, Rahane gave the vocal Indian crowd something to cheer when he hooked Cummins over fine-leg for six to bring up his half-century. He passed 5,000 Test runs soon after, the 13th Indian to do so, but he also required a stroke of fortune to reach the break.
On 72 he aimed a flowing drive at Cummins, sending a head-high catch to first slip. Wicketkeeper Alex Carey appeared to offer a minor distraction to David Warner, but he will still be kicking himself after parrying the edge.
Australia’s annoyance only increased when Cummins saw an lbw decision against Thakur overturned by a no-ball call. It was a case of history repeating for Cummins, who had also lost a wicket to over-stepping on day two when Rahane was reprieved on 17.
Australia needed a pick-me-up and Green provided it in style at the start of the afternoon session, showing razor-sharp reactions and athleticism to take a jaw-dropping catch that ended Rahane’s stay. Cummins was the beneficiary and he made sure to cash in when he cleaned up Umesh Yadav for five.
Thakur reached 51 before being undone by Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc finished things up by bouncing out Mohammed Shami.
The India-dominant crowd did their best to create a hostile atmosphere for the Australian batters, with Warner an early casualty as he nicked off to Mohammed Siraj. Labuschagne was woken from a nap on the balcony to dash out at number three and he occupied the crease for the rest of the day, soaking up 118 balls.
Khawaja missed out for the second time in the match when he swung hard at Yadav and fed Bharat another catch, before Jadeja took advantage of some attacking strokes from Smith and Head. The former holed out on the charge, with Head feeding a return catch back to the spinner, but Australia’s lead was growing all the time to leave India struggling.
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