|Fifth LV= Insurance Ashes Test, The Kia Oval (second day of five)|
|England 283 (Brook 85, Duckett 41, Stark 4-82)|
|Australia 295 (Smith 71, Woakes 3-61)|
|Australia are 12 points ahead|
England’s final Ashes Test against Australia hangs in the balance after a convincing battle for control on day two at The Oval.
With Australia almost devoid of any intention to score, England gradually made inroads in a superb display of bowling to reduce the tourists to 185-7.
Marnus Labuschagne set the pace taking 82 balls from his nine but after being caught spectacularly by Joe Root on the first slip England struck at even intervals.
Steve Smith, who continued his fine record on this ground with 71, reversed the trend and put Australia on the right track for a slim advantage.
Smith added 54 with Pat Cummins, with the skipper himself then sharing a vital 49 with Todd Murphy, who made an enterprising 34.
The final act was a wonderful boundary take by England captain Ben Stokes to fire Cummins for 36, leaving Australia 295 all out and leading by 12 points.
England’s couture bowlers were collectively excellent, their performance all the more impressive given that Moeen Ali didn’t play a part due to a groin injury. Chris Woakes had the most success, going 3-61.
He left the fifth Test in a wonderfully balanced series, with England’s chances of leveling at 2-2 almost identical to Australia’s hope of winning 3-1.
Arm wrestling at the Oval
While England’s antics to 283 in under 55 overs ensured day one was never short of incident, day two was a calmer tussle punctuated with moments of drama.
Root’s superb hold to knock out Labuschagne, Stuart Broad whipping the crowd and taking two wickets in as many overs, underhand George Ealham producing shades of Gary Pratt to nearly miss Smith’s grand finale and Stokes were the stars.
But the overriding theme was the passive nature of Australia’s exploration towards England’s total.
The slow path could have been a response to the quality of the bowling, the difficulty of the conditions, the desire to be the antithesis of the English swashbuckling style, or a combination of the three. Either way, Australia almost got themselves into trouble.
Only Smith, who overtook Don Bradman’s 553 runs at The Oval to become the top foreign goalscorer on that ground, struck at a rate similar to his normal pace and in doing so kept the tourists afloat with the help of Cummins and Murphy.
The match is now set to be shaped by England’s second leg, which will start when play resumes on the third morning.
England have the chance to set a goal out of Australia’s reach, the tourists have the chance to fire England cheaply for a comfortable fourth-inning chase.
Given the nature of the series, a close finish to this test is very likely and would be most appropriate.
Australia flirts with danger
Whatever the intent of Australia’s approach, it almost backfired. At 61-1 from 25 overs overnight, there was rarely a sign to move the game forward on Friday and it played into England’s hands.
The tourists scored their first kicks only at the 27th ball of the day. The 47.4 overs it took them to reach 100 was the longest in a Test from the Ashes in 33 years. At 54.4 overs, England were out for 283, Australia 130-4.
Australia’s caution wouldn’t have been a problem had they knocked England out of the game. But, given the movement that was present for most of the day, bowlers were always likely to create chances and England seized them.
Labuschagne complained that it was too dark after getting ahead of Wood, but the light was good enough for Root to take his magnificent catch. Khawaja, barely awake compiling 47 of 157 balls, and Travis Head fell to the fiery Broad just after lunch. Mitchell Marsh and Alex Carey found ways out.
Smith, however, played good forehands and found good support from Cummins. Smith survived the tight run on 44, Cummins knocked down given lbw to Broad with the second new ball on 10.
After Smith’s unusual shot at Woakes gave Bairstow an advantage, Murphy hooked three sixes to lead Australia into the lead.
Murphy was ahead of Woakes and England turned to Root in the dying moments. Cummins swung to long and Stokes, on the pitch of his famous catch at the 2019 World Cup, did the rest athletically.
England persist in staying competitive
England’s total was no better than normal, so the hosts needed their bowlers to keep them in the competition. To a man, they answered.
As always in Ashes Tests, the showman was Broad, who found ways to affect the game even when he wasn’t bowling.
In an apparent attempt to change England’s luck, he performed a usual Broad trick – changing the bails just before Labuschagne took the strike. The next ball, Root took his jaw-dropping catch, a reflexive one-handed effort to his left to give a first wicket to Wood, who then bounced Mitchell Starc.
When Broad was bowling, he was a constant threat. Khawaja was visibly on the leg in front and Head slightly behind. The double strike returned Broad to the top of the series wicket chart with 20 scalps.
James Anderson, under scrutiny for his lack of success on the show, was relentless and deserved more than Marsh’s drag-on. Woakes gave nothing away and got the key wickets from Smith and Murphy while Root replaced Moeen to pick it up 2-20.
England’s only mistake may have been not knocking out Smith when the score would have been 195-8.
After Ealham’s quick recovery and throw, television referee Nitin Menon ruled that Smith had not come out amid the confusion whether Bairstow had snapped the stumps too early or the Australian vice-captain had just done enough to gain ground. Either way, Smith certainly would have been knocked out had Bairstow made the throw past the stumps.
If it was a minor mistake, then Stokes’ grab was a brilliant last act in what turned out to be the final delivery.
Knowing his momentum would carry the ball over the top line, Stokes tossed it in the air, out then came back inside the boundary to complete the catch. It was a fiendishly difficult piece of terrain made to look incredibly simple.