Seamers build on Steven Smith's ton to give Australia control

Test century No. 31 for Steven Smith
June 08, 2023

India 151 for 5 (Jadeja 48, Boland 1-29, Lyon 1-4) trail Australia 469 (Head 163, Smith 121, Siraj 4-108) by 318 runs

Australia's bowlers showed India just where they had gone wrong on day one, their quicks settling into the perfect length on a still helpful Oval pitch as their side took control of the World Test Championship final. By stumps on day two, Australia had reduced India to 151 for 5 in reply to their first-innings total of 469.

The fast bowlers did the bulk of the damage, but there was also a wicket for Nathan Lyon, off a dipping, turning offbreak that had Ravindra Jadeja, India's top-scorer, nicking to first slip some 15 minutes from stumps, to end a 71-run fifth-wicket stand with Ajinkya Rahane. The wicket, and the manner it came, may have added more fuel to the debate surrounding India's selection, and the exclusion of R Ashwin against an Australian line-up heavy on left-hand batters.

For all that, India's major issues came about not because they picked four quicks but because of how they bowled. On a pitch bouncier than the typical Indian surface, they needed to pitch the ball fuller than the traditional good length to challenge the stumps consistently and bring all modes of dismissal into play. They didn't do this consistently enough, and even though their bowlers fought back through the first half of day two to take 7 for 142, it perhaps came a little too late, because they had let Australia run away to 327 for 3 on day one.

Bowled out almost exactly halfway into the day's play, Australia's fast bowlers came out and showed how it's done, on a pitch that was now beginning to sport cracks all over its surface. Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins overpitched frequently at the start of their new-ball spells, and Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill got off to a breezy start, but it seemed a matter of time before the quicks figured out the ideal length - full but not driveable.

Cummins hit this length with the last ball of the sixth over, nipping it in and trapping the half-forward Rohit in front. Then Scott Boland, a bowler seemingly designed in a lab to bowl in these conditions, bowled a wicked in-dipper - to follow nine probing dot balls to the two openers - that Gill fatally shouldered arms to.

Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli then put on 20 either side of tea, looking in good touch but always wary of the seam movement and occasional inconsistent bounce that characterised this surface, before Cameron Green produced a replica of the Boland ball that had bowled Gill. Pujara produced a replica of Gill's response, and India were 50 for 3, all of their top three either bowled or lbw.

It became 71 for 4 when the returning Starc joined the party with a vicious delivery to Kohli, slanted across from left-arm over and taking off from a length. Kohli, pressing onto the front foot, was in no position to negotiate it safely; all he could do was glove the ball to second slip.

Rahane could have fallen soon after, had Cummins not overstepped when he bowled a peach that straightened from that perfect fullish length to beat his outside edge and hit his back pad roughly in front of off stump. Rahane reviewed after being given out on the field, and replays picked up the no-ball; ball-tracking showed two reds and an umpire's call verdict on the line of impact.

Batting against the old Dukes ball has been significantly easier than it has been against the new one over the last two English summers, with Nos. 5 and 6 averaging a world-leading 53.08 here since the start of 2022, while Nos. 1 to 4 average 31.28 - they've only done worse in the West Indies (31.00) in this period. After a nervy early period that included that close lbw call and a pair of leading edges from Jadeja, India's fifth-wicket pair certainly looked in a lot more comfort than their top-order counterparts.

Jadeja, who profited from Australia's bowlers - Starc in particular - overpitching frequently to him, rattled along at close to a run a ball, while Rahane, returning to Test cricket for the first time since January 2022, ticked over more sedately while looking just as fluent. India would have hoped their partnership extended to stumps; Lyon punctured those hopes, striking with his ninth ball of the match.

The day had dawned clear and sunny with Steven Smith five short of his 31st Test hundred and Travis Head four short of 150. They raced past their respective milestones quickly, with Mohammed Siraj offering Smith a pair of straight half-volleys in the first over of the morning to start the day on an ominous note for India.

Things improved, though, with a sustained short-ball attack at Head's body finally yielding success when the left-hander gloved Siraj down the leg side on 163. Mohammed Shami then produced a beauty to send back the No. 6 Green, slanting a full ball in from wide of the crease to draw a loose drive away from the body.

Smith was next to go, pushing away from his body at an innocuous Shardul Thakur away-curler to play on for 121. India had struck three times before Australia reached 400, and may have hoped to wrap up their innings not too long after, but a counterattacking 48 from Alex Carey carried the score past 450. Carey rode his luck - particularly against Umesh Yadav who beat his bat repeatedly in a short spell after lunch - before he fell in familiar fashion, lbw attempting a reverse-sweep against a stump-to-stump delivery from Jadeja.

That was the only Australian wicket to fall to spin; Siraj ended as India's most successful bowler, finishing with figures of 4 for 108, while Shami and Thakur bagged two apiece.

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