On a day of unbroken sunshine at the Oval India toiled in Australia’s shadow. Ascendant at the end of day one, Pat Cummins’ side were resplendent at stumps on day two and, though Ravindra Jadeja and Ajinkya Rahane led something of a late fightback, India ended the day on 151 for five, still 318 behind.
They will feel they contributed to their own downfall. There was some unexceptional bowling, occasionally downright wayward, as Australia reached a total of 469. Later Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara both fell to superlative deliveries, but they would have had a better chance of impeding their progress towards the stumps had they attempted to get their bats in the way.
If this game is drawn the trophy is shared, which rather takes away the incentive for a side to take any risks once they fall behind in the contest. India’s intention at the end of Australia’s innings must have been to slowly, carefully, find a foothold in the cliff face.
Perhaps they picked up on the fervour of the crowd, who greeted every run as if the scorer had just won a lifetime achievement Bafta, but little about what progress they made at the start of their innings was calm or careful.
The top four all fell having scored 13, 14 or 15, three of them when leaving or at least trying to. As captain, Rohit Sharma led the way, pinned lbw by Cummins. Gill followed in the next over, shouldering arms as a Scott Boland delivery swung towards middle and off. The delivery that did for Pujara was nearly identical, for all that it hit only one stump, Cameron Green finally claiming his first Indian Test wicket at the 389th attempt.
Then Mitchell Starc got one to rear viciously into Virat Kohli and, as the batter tried to get out of the way, it flicked off his right thumb, extended out beyond the handle of his bat, and looped to Steve Smith at second slip. When, moments later, the logo of the Indian cola brand Thums Up (sic), an International Cricket Council partner, appeared on the Oval’s big screen, it seemed like a personal affront.
Shortly afterwards, with the score on 87, Cummins had Rahane given lbw off what turned out to be a no-ball.
It took Rahane more than an hour to score another run as he and Jadeja belatedly brought a measure of solidity to India’s innings, and from 71 for four they precisely doubled the score before Jadeja edged Nathan Lyon to slip.
Australia had been on the front foot from the start, Smith hitting Mohammed Siraj’s second ball of the day for four to move to 99 and the next through midwicket to bring up his 31st century in 97 matches. “When I started the morning I couldn’t have asked for more than two half-volleys on the pads to get me over the milestone,” he said.
Three overs later Travis Head cut Mohammed Shami for four to take his score beyond 150, and six overs into the day Australia had added 34 to their overnight score to reach 361 for three.
Seven overs later it was 387 for six, as India belatedly and only temporarily saw fortune swing in their favour. Head fell for 163 off just 174 balls, victim as David Warner had been on Wednesday to an angled short ball that tempted him into a pull and clipped a glove. His partnership with Smith was worth 284 – Australians have only enjoyed five bigger in England, and three of those featured Don Bradman.
Green lasted seven balls before a loose drive gave Gill a chance to take a fine catch at second slip. Smith misjudged Shardul Thakur’s first delivery of the day, little more than a loosener, and diverted it into his stumps having scored 121, taking his average in six Test innings at the Oval to a frightening 102.4. “I thought I applied myself nicely, left well on Wednesday morning, hit the balls in my area and was pretty solid in defence,” he said. “Obviously Trav batted beautifully and the way he took their bowlers on, hit them off their lengths, really helped me at the other end.”
The dismissal of Starc seemed to confirm a shift in momentum. Shami, a right-hander, had briefly left the field and the left-handed Axar Patel replaced him at mid-off, and it was to his left side that Starc pushed the ball before calling for a single – he had just played and missed twice, which might have added to his desperation to get off strike. Patel gathered it and released it in one fluid movement, and Starc watched it clatter into the stumps and just kept running, altering his angle slightly to change his course towards the dressing room.
But India could not stem the scoring and after a slow start Alex Carey accelerated, hitting three boundaries in a single Shami over – one off the edge, to be fair – and biffing Jadeja over long-on for six. But during Australia’s recent Test series in India Carey repeatedly fell attempting reverse sweeps against spin and one ball later it was his undoing again here. Australia have not been perfect, but they are certainly pretty daunting.