This is rather a strange Test match. England are now hot favourites to square the series, barring a ridiculous Smith innings, which given his performances this summer only a fool would rule out entirely. With the Ashes gone, the question of this Test being a dead rubber or otherwise is a fair one, but it is somewhat surprising to see how shoddy Australia’s performance has been at the Oval, given the series wasn’t won. Catches dropped in the first innings, some poor bowling in the second, and while England’s problems haven’t gone away, they’ve played with by far the greater intensity of the two teams in this one.
Joe Denly was the star of the day, falling 6 runs short of a maiden Test century – his disappointment at getting out plain for all to see. He has been perhaps the most interesting of the players tried in the England top order; he certainly hasn’t been a runaway success, but he has delivered more and more as the series has gone on. His technical flaws outside off stump were beautifully highlighted by Ricky Ponting, but he has been flashing at the wider ball on fewer occasions and seen his run returns improve as a result. At 33 years old, he has set an example to some of the other – more experienced – players about how to learn and improve, rather than just repeating the same errors innings after innings. He had some luck – being dropped last evening and getting away with an lbw not reviewed by Australia – their dire DRS performance continuing – but he earned it. In the latter part of his career, he may not be considered a long term enough player for winter selection, but short term selections to fulfill a role – perhaps at 3 allowing Root to drop a place – aren’t necessarily bad in themselves. Either way, his innings at Headingley gave England an outside chance of a win, his innings here has put England in a position where they should win. It’s more than most in the top order have done.
Stokes and Buttler provided the most support. The former looks to be the best batsman in the England side at present, given Root’s technical struggles. Stokes has an uncomplicated technique, allied with ferocious power, and a concentration level that perhaps might not be expected of such a destructive player. But while the sixes were still hit, this was a disciplined, focused innings in partnership with Denly that took England from a position of mild peril to one of strength.
Buttler capitalised on the foundation with a breezy knock taking England’s lead past 300. He’s a funny one, he’s not had a good series overall, but has batted relatively well in the last couple of innings. His defenders advance the case that to see him at his best the side need to lay a platform for him so he can play his shots, and while that’s probably true, if he’s in the side as a batsman then his job is to bat in all circumstances, not just to press an advantage home, or he’s simply a luxury player in a team that doesn’t have that freedom to select one.
Cummins and Hazlewood were again the pick of the Australian attack, without getting the rewards due, but Mitchell Marsh, given his first innings efforts, was curiously underbowled, and got more movement through the air than most others when he did. Siddle picked up a couple of wickets, but was highly expensive, while Lyon was targeted early on by Denly and proved unable to fully contain the England batsmen thereafter.
As for tomorrow, England have a couple of wickets in hand, but are unlikely to add too many more runs, meaning Australia are likely to be chasing around 400 on a surface that’s still good, but offering a little more turn for Leach to exploit. It is a measure of the fear Smith has instilled that England aren’t considered nailed on to win this. Should they do so – and they really ought to, a 2-2 draw would represent something of a success in many ways – not in pure terms, but given how they’ve played. Failing to regain the Ashes, certainly, but for much of this series the England batting order has been a mess, to the point that dropping a batsman for a bowling all rounder represented a strengthening of the order. It would also be something of a failure for Australia not to win the series. They’ve been the better team in three of the matches, denied by a freak performance from Ben Stokes. Retaining the Ashes might have been the primary aim, but not winning a series that they really should do is falling rather short.
Lastly, the mandated number of overs to be bowled yet again weren’t. Only two short today, but the running total for this Test now stands at 17 unbowled due to tardiness. It remains unacceptable.