London, June 9 (IANS) Australia continued to remain ahead in the World Test Championship final by extending their lead to 296, despite a superb Indian fightback led by Ajinkya Rahane and Shardul Thakur on a riveting day three’s play at The Oval, here on Friday.
When KS Bharat was bowled through the gate by Scott Boland in the first over of the morning session, the fear of being bowled out quickly loomed large over India. But Rahane and Thakur fought hard to capitalise on Australia’s inconsistent bowling, as well as slices of luck coming via no-balls and sloppy fielding.
Rahane and Thakur shared a superb 109-run partnership off 145 balls for the seventh wicket to lead a superb fightback for India and avoid the ignominy of follow-on. Rahane, playing in Test cricket for the first time since January 2022, shined on his comeback with a splendid 89, his 26th half-century in the format.
Thakur, meanwhile, survived some blows on his forearm to make a gritty 51, his third consecutive fifty at the venue, as Australia bowled out India for 296, gaining a vital 173-run first-innings lead. India put up a much-improved show with the ball, using short balls to good effect and were bang on in their tactics too, resulting in David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith and Travis Head being out before the day came to an end.
Marnus Labuschagne overcame an uncharacteristic start and fiery bowling to be unbeaten on 41 at stumps, with Cameron Green giving him company at seven not out. Through the duo, Australia will be aiming to increase their lead to 400 and beyond to set up a stiff chase for India on a deteriorating pitch.
Rahane was precise in his timing and application to bring out some scintillating stroke play against full and short balls while on his way to be the 13th Indian batter to cross 5000 runs in Test cricket. Thakur survived two chances — Green dropped his catch on eight, after Usman Khawaja dropped him previously on nought.
Thakur was also troubled by high pace and bounce from Pat Cummins, copping blows on his left forearm twice. Rahane was undeterred and played with soft hands to drive in the gap through square of the wicket twice for fours, before hooking outstandingly off Cummins over long leg for six to reach his fifty, earning huge cheers from Indian fans.
Rahane survived a close lbw appeal off Green, before edging one over slip cordon and leaning into an elegant drive past extra cover to pick back-to-back fours. Thakur wowed the crowd with a smashing cover drive on a juicy half-volley and cracked a stunning cut over point to pick two fours off Mitchell Starc.
Rahane got a life at 72 when he drove hard off Cummins and the edge flew between keeper and first slip, as the latter barely got a hand on the ball after reacting late, and welcomed Nathan Lyon by driving an overpitched delivery through cover-point for four.
Thakur gained more confidence by flicking a half-volley from Cummins past square leg for four. Rahane brought up century of the partnership with a sweet back-foot punch through cover-point off Lyon for four and ended the over with a trademark cover drive for a boundary.
Thakur was trapped lbw on 36 but replays on review showed Cummins had overstepped yet again, giving him and India a huge sigh of relief. Rahane’s quest for a century ended post lunch when he punched away from his body off Cummins and Green dived to his right at gully and stuck out his right hand to complete a one-handed screamer of a catch.
India managed to avoid the follow-on and despite Thakur driving gloriously through mid-on and mid-off for boundaries against Cummins to reach his fifty in 108 balls, India’s innings ended in 69.4 overs.
During Australia’s second innings, India had a breakthrough when Mohammed Siraj got his wobble-seam delivery to seam away and Warner, shaping to play a drive, got a thick edge which was grabbed by Bharat moving low to his left.
Siraj and Shami looked more threatening with their usage of short balls by consistently hitting gloves of Khawaja and Labuschagne, with square leg stationed. The left-right batting duo survived two big mix-ups apart from Khawaja being squared up by Siraj and Shami trying to trouble Labuschagne with deliveries angled in.
Khawaja managed to emphatically pull Siraj twice for boundaries. But post tea, he couldn’t resist from driving a wide length ball off Umesh, and nicked behind to Bharat. Labuschagne finally broke shackles by flicking off Umesh and Shami twice for fours while Smith got up and ran by pulling off Shami and punching against Umesh to pick a brace of boundaries.
The duo then resorted to strike-rotation to keep the scoreboard ticking as the ball stopped being lively, with Labuschagne taking driving and pulling off pacers for boundaries while Smith fired an edge past slip off Ravindra Jadeja for four.
The 62-run partnership came to an end when Smith danced down the pitch against a short and wide ball from Jadeja and skied high to cover-point. Head was kept in check by spinning in balls from Jadeja while being troubled by bouncers from Siraj, though he did get a pulled six off a no-ball.
Head was dropped on 12 when Umesh couldn’t catch his slog-sweep off Jadeja at deep mid-wicket to concede a six. But a ball later, Head’s attempt to cover drive against the turn backfired as Jadeja took a catch off his own bowling. Labuschagne and Green resisted every challenge from Indian bowlers till stumps arrived.
Brief Scores: Australia 469 in 121.3 overs and 123/4 in 44 overs (Marnus Labuschagne 41 not out, Steve Smith 34; Ravindra Jadeja 2/25, Umesh Yadav 1/21) lead India 296 in 69.4 overs (Ajinkya Rahane 89, Shardul Thakur 51; Pat Cummins 3/83, Cameron Green 2/44) by 296 runs.