Ben Stokes drops Steve Smith as Australia edge towards target in Ashes finale

Australia reached lunch on 238 for three, needing 384 to seal a 3-1 series win.

Rory Dollard
Monday 31 July 2023 14:04 BST
Steve Smith was dropped by Ben Stokes just before lunch at the Oval (Mike Egerton/PA)
Steve Smith was dropped by Ben Stokes just before lunch at the Oval (Mike Egerton/PA) (PA Wire)

Ben Stokes let a crucial catch slip through his fingers as England and Australia moved towards a nail-biting conclusion in the final Ashes Test of the summer.

Chasing a massive 384 to win the series 3-1, Australia reached lunch on day five at the Kia Oval on 238 for three, just seconds after a pivotal moment that reprieved Steve Smith on 39.

Smith had just gloved Moeen Ali to leg-slip, where Stokes leapt up and grabbed the ball one-handed only for it to tumble to the ground before he had full control.

A moment of confusion followed as Stokes called for DRS to force through the wicket, suggesting he was claiming a clean take, but the TV umpire concurred with the not out verdict and struck down the review.

There were plenty of discussions between the players, officials and batters as they walked off for the break, but the incident underlined the impression that things were moving in Australia’s favour after a bad start.

Resuming in a strong position at 135 without loss, they lost three for 29 as a Chris Woakes double strike and one from Mark Wood raised the home side’s hopes. With two sessions remaining, England need seven more wickets with just 146 runs to play with.

Play began 10 minutes late after a morning shower, but England seized the initiative as soon the covers came off taking their first two wickets for six runs.

On his last day as a professional cricketer the retiring Stuart Broad beat the outside edge with a couple of beauties, but it was Woakes who did the damage.

He had David Warner (60) caught behind with a ball that angled away from a tight line, drawing the curtain on the left-hander’s final Ashes innings, and then turned that long-awaited breakthrough into a double.

Usman Khawaja has been the most durable and productive batter in the series but fell four short of the 500-run mark when he stayed back to his 1,263rd delivery in the past seven weeks. Woakes dragged the ball back in from middle to leg and pinned the batter on the knee-roll to send him back for 72.

England had successfully reclaimed some of the lost ground and clawed back even more when Marnus Labuschagne’s unfulfilled summer continued with a low edge that settled in the safe hands of Zak Crawley at second slip.

Wood was not at his top speed, said to be struggling with a heel problem, but was bounding in with his usual heart.

At 169 for three the winning line suddenly seemed a long way in the distance, but Australia were in no mood to lie down. Smith and Head threw off the shackles, seeking out the boundaries they needed to ease the pressure.

James Anderson, a day on from his 41st birthday, over-pitched too often and saw his first three overs milked for 22 while Broad was luckless from the Pavilion End.

The fourth-wicket pair took just 61 balls to post a fifty stand but the introduction of Moeen almost stopped their charge in the final over before the break.

It remains to be seen how Stokes’ recollection of the incident will unfold, but had he held on just a few seconds longer Smith’s role in the conclusion would already be over.

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