Some sloppy fielding and batting by Australia have slackened their grip on the World Test Championship final as a dogged performance by India keeps them in with the slightest hunt of forcing an extraordinary win.
While the Aussies remain firmly in control of the match, reaching stumps at 4/123 in their second innings with a sizeable 296-run lead already, a series of dropped chances in the field allowed India, thanks to a career-reviving 89 from Ajinkya Rahane and a dogged half-century from tailender Shardul Thakur, to stave off the threat of being bundled out cheaply.
The day wasn’t without highlights, the finest a spectacular one-handed catch from Cameron Green and a fighting unbeaten 41 from Marnus Labuschagne, but after seldom putting a foot wrong across the first two days of the Test, this was a timely reminder that this Australian team, impressive though they are, are far from the finished article.
Two late wickets and some appreciable turn from Ravindra Jadeja (2/25), the first time all Test spin has looked to be a threat, may provide Australia just as much comfort as their lead; no doubt Nathan Lyon is already salivating at the prospect of what looms as a tantalising contest against India’s batting order on Days 4 and 5.
Having dominated the first two days, Australia seemed on track for more of the same when Scott Boland took just two balls to strike, nipping back through KS Bharat’s feeble defence and into the stumps via first pad and then bat.
Six down and tail exposed, and still more than 300 in arrears, a hefty first-innings deficit loomed for India; from there, though, the previously indomitable Aussies would lose considerable lustre to allow Rahane and Thakur to mount a recovery effort.
Recalled out of the blue for the one-off Test due to his experience as a man for the crisis, Rahane showed fluency none of his teammates had managed, driving crisply and dispatching anything short; together with the belligerent Thakur, whose lower-order resistance would surely have given some of the Australians flashbacks to the Gabba in early 2021, the pair added 109 in just over 21 overs to see India to stumps with no further loss, and the deficit whittled down considerably.
Helping their case to no end were some all-too-familiar jitters from Australia in the field; beginning with a straightforward shelled chance from Green in the gully to spare Thakur on 8, the malaise spread to the rest of the cordon. Yet again, Alex Carey failed to move for a regulation keeper’s chance to his right off Pat Cummins with Rahane on 72, his initial hint at going distracting David Warner at first slip enough to leave him only time to stick out a despairing left hand. It will go down in the books as Warner’s drop, but not for the first time since his debut, the South Australian’s glovework left plenty to be desired.
Cummins, so often the iceman with ball in hand, couldn’t abide another mistake, this time his own; after a no ball cost him the wicket of Thakur LBW in the over before the lunch break, the second time in as many days his front foot has come between him and a scalp, the captain angrily booted the ball to slip to close out the session.
Bringing up 50 with a mighty hooked six, Rahane’s stay was assured save for his one reprieve: moving within two shots of a career-rejuvenating century, it took some magic from Green to end his stay, making up for his earlier drop with a spectacular one-handed snare diving to his right to get Cummins back amongst the wickets at last.
Energy now replenished, Cummins returned to his menacing best, skittling Umesh Yadav with a ball most specialist batters would have struggled to keep out, seaming away and cannoning perfectly into the top of off.
The rest of the Indian tail survived long enough for Thakur to post a well-earned 50, but when Green’s golden arm struck to remove the counterpuncher caught behind for 51 to precede Mitchell Starc doing the same to Mohammed Shami an over later, the innings was done.
While the 296 on the board did mean a first-innings deficit of 173, one suspects Rohit Sharma would have gleefully accepted such a situation at the start of the day.
Once again, India attacked the Australian top order with menace; having kept the wolf from the door with a fighting 43 on Day 1, Warner’s latest low score, edging Siraj behind for 1, will again mount the pressure on the veteran opener’s head as the Ashes and nemesis Stuart Broad loom large.
Roused from an ambitious snooze by Warner’s fall, Labuschagne’s alertness would quickly be tested, rapped on the gloves repeatedly by Siraj and Shami as the pitch continued to show the uneven bounce that has made batting treacherous throughout the match.
While he and Usman Khawaja weathered the storm through to tea, though not without a series of hair-raising near-disasters between the wickets, the left-hander wouldn’t long outlast it.
A flashy drive to a Yadav offering that could have easily been left alone ended Khawaja’s stay on 13, bringing about a rare double failure since his triumphant return to Test cricket in the last Ashes series; for all his achievements in the last 18 months, it was the sort of lazy shot reminiscent of the frustrating Khawaja of old, the man whose career average in England now sits below 18.
But if Australia, still only 197 in front, feared a match-turning collapse, they needn’t have. From the moment Smith clipped a Shami bouncer disdainfully past square leg for four, the first-innings centurion looked once again unfazed by anything India’s bowlers could throw at him.
Perhaps the greatest batter in English climes since Bradman, Smith made Labuschagne’s regular discomfort look all the more glaring in comparison. Playing the ball late and never looking rushed, the 34-year old was adept at turning over the strike with perfect placement, interspersed with the occasional expansive boundary, and another big score loomed.
It was the man himself, in the end, to wreck those dreams: having made his way languidly to 34, a tossed-up Jadeja offering proved too tempting to ignore. Failing to get to the pitch of the ball, Smith’s wild hoick, comfortably his ugliest shot of the Test to date, would only cover distance vertically, Thakur taking a simple catch at cover for a wicket truly out of nowhere.
Head’s arrival at the crease brought with it, as expected, yet another short-ball onslaught, but while there would be more hairy moments, most obviously an airy hook to fine leg that would have picked out Jadeja perfectly had he not cribbed 15 metres in from the boundary rope – it was a no ball anyway – it would be spin to remove Australia’s most dangerous batter.
Just two balls after a slog-sweep had been fumbled over the boundary by Yadav, Head again lined up Jadeja in pursuit of quick runs, only to chip back a simple return catch.
Needing to steer the team safely through to stumps, Green, together with Labuschagne, did just that; a gorgeous cover drive surely enough to give the all-rounder a crucial injection of confidence ahead of another challenging day tomorrow, and indeed summer ahead.