Aussies battle hard but staring at a monster run chase
A Steve Smith screamer lifted spirits late but Australia endured a tough day with more DRS drama and drops against England
Andrew Ramsey at The Oval
15 September 2019, 06:44 AM AEST
If Australia are to chalk up their first Ashes series win in England in almost two decades, they will need to defy history as well as the home team's rampant bowlers over the fifth Test's last couple of days.
England enter day four on Sunday totally dominant at 8-313 and holding what history suggests is an unattainable lead of 382 with Australia needing to somehow chase down the victory or bat out the best part of two days to extend or maintain their current Ashes series lead.
The tourists must also shoulder a hefty portion of blame for the predicament they find themselves in due to the litany of opportunities they've squandered since Tim Paine's call at the coin toss to field first.
A couple of dropped catches and as many refusals to review lbw calls that would have yielded wickets continued the theme of wastefulness that has characterised Australia's efforts in this Test.
There was belated redemption in the final half-hour on Saturday when Steve Smith (complementing his status as a peerless batter by showing he's also the best fielder) and Marnus Labuschagne each hauled in sensational grabs from consecutive deliveries.
Smith's was a gravity defying one-handed grab off Chris Woakes as he flung himself to his right, while Labuschagne's came from a full-length dive sprinting in from the deep square leg boundary to pluck Jos Buttler's offering a hair's breadth from the turf.
But the reality remains that no team has scored more than 263 batting fourth to win a Test at The Oval, and that feat was achieved almost 120 years ago by England during the Ashes battle of 1902.
Australia's highest fourth-innings score at the venue was the 348 they posted in 2009, when Michael Hussey scored a dogged 121 but his team still lost by 197 runs.
Not even London's famously fickle weather will prove decisive in the series scoreline that stands 2-1 in Australia's favour, with near-summer conditions forecast for the coming week.
While it seemed likely for a time on Saturday that Headingley hero Ben Stokes would drive England's latest victory surge, he was overshadowed by new dad Joe Denly who came within a Stokes-eque blow of his maiden Test century during a 127-run partnership with the mercurial allrounder.
But Denly's 94 – scored two days after his wife, Stacy, gave birth to the couple's second child – only served to remind Australia of the profligacy that has plagued them this Test given he was missed from a straightforward chance before he had scored.
It was the first of two costly slip-ups that followed the hat-trick of dropped catches from England skipper Joe Root on the opening day.
Stokes survived a tough chance that flew to the otherwise infallible Smith at slip off the bowling of Nathan Lyon when he had scored just seven.
The fact that Stokes was eventually bowled by a superb delivery from Lyon for 67 came as belated comfort to Australia given the previous lapses against the brilliant left-hander who has been troubled by the off-spinner more than any other rival bowler.
When Stokes was missed at slip off Lyon at Lord's (on 2 and again on 6) he went on to score an unbeaten 115 that saw England almost snatch a last-day win.
Then, in the next Test at Headingley, he was dropped at slip from Lyon's bowling on 37 before clubbing that unforgettable 135 not out that levelled and enlived the Ashes series.
Had the 28-year-old cashed in to the same extent that he did his previous reprieves, Australia's position would be undoubtedly worse.
Australia might have felt they were hard done by with a couple of lbw decisions that were turned down on the field, and that disquiet will be aggravated by the knowledge they could have overturned both had they chosen to review.
The initial verdicts were proved to be wrong, but even allowing for their woeful record with the DRS process during this campaign Australia's refusal to activate their quota of two referrals was difficult to fathom.
Especially in light of the urgency with which they required wickets as Denly and Stokes pushed England's lead ever-closer to 300.
Denly would have been out for 54 had Mitchell Marsh's beseeching shout moved his skipper to refer.
Marsh was certain the delivery that veered past Denly's inside edge and crashed into his back leg would have hit leg stump, a judgement the ball-tracking technology would have confirmed had the question been asked.
And Jos Buttler, England's top-scorer in the first innings who went on to plunder 47 from 63 balls in the second, would have seen his innings ended on 19 if Australia's on-field brains trust had not wrongly assumed the ball from Lyon that hit him high on the pads was bouncing over the wicket.
The missed opportunity against Denly that followed the muffed catch on Friday evening heightened the sense that, eight matches into his late-blooming Test career, destiny might finally be set to deliver the 33-year-old a Test ton.
In addition to his fortune, he had experienced pain when Pat Cummins struck him a thunderous blow amidships.
But he regrouped and peeled off some exquisite strokes on his way past his previous highest Test score (69) and flirted with his luck when he lofted leg-spinner Labuschagne over Marsh's outstretched fingers at mid-off.
When he reached the nineties for the first time in Tests he lost Stokes who had seemed pre-ordained to crown his most remarkable summer with one last act of genius.
Three overs later, having not added to his tally, Denly nicked a catch to Smith at slip and, despite the frustration he endured having got so close to personal glory, he would have been buoyed by the rousing ovation he received and knowing England's lead was rapidly outgrowing Australia's reach.
That had been the day's way, seemingly before a ball had been bowled.
England's openers could scarcely have ordered a more perfect set of circumstances when they returned to the middle of The Oval, amid bright autumn sunshine to be greeted by one of the nation's best batting surfaces and a bowling attack already low on fuel.
Update from Aussie camp: "Marcus Harris suffered split webbing on his left hand while fielding late yesterday which required 7 stitches. He won’t field but is expected to bat." #Ashes pic.twitter.com/c2aQp91JHv— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) September 14, 2019
England's first pair posted the first half-century opening stand of the series as if to underscore how straightforward batting had become.
But it was Lyon, who had felt the brunt of Denly's dancing feet and swinging blade in his opening over, who ended the union on 54, with perhaps the worst ball he delivered.
Denly had monopolised the strike against the spinner, so when Rory Burns received a short, wide delivery as the second he faced from Lyon he tried to smash it through cover but found only a bottom-edge to keeper Paine.
The arrival of Root to replace Burns saw Cummins and Josh Hazlewood return to the attack, so effective have they proved in negating the England captain. However, it was Lyon who ended Root's 2019 Ashes campaign after he reached 21 in his final dig.
The spinner landed his second delivery of a new spell on a perfect length, and drew Root into playing for turn against a ball that continued on with Lyon's arm and was edged knee-high to Smith at slip.
That breakthrough came on the cusp of lunch, which England took holding a lead of 157 with Denly and Stokes at the crease.
The pair were still in occupation at the subsequent tea adjournment, by which time Australia had wasted another clutch of opportunities and hopes of the drought-breaking Ashes win they had dared dream of days earlier had fallen with them.
Australia XI: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, Mitch Marsh, Tim Paine (c, wk), Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
England XI: Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia won by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: England won by one wicket at Headingley
Fourth Test: Australia won by 185 runs at Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval