A warm and warming day of batting for England, one last hurrah at the end of a long and exhausting summer. With one important caveat – which we’ll come to in a moment – they should now have more than enough runs to win the Test and square the series 2-2. This is a team with holes and flaws but no lack of spirit, and as they made Australia toil in the unseasonable September sun, it was possible to wonder if a few of their problems, however illusorily, may just be working themselves out.
For one thing, they appear to have struck quite by accident on a viable opening partnership. With Rory Burns looking increasingly comfortable at the top of the order, Joe Denly may well have saved his Test career with a fine 94 here, an innings all the more impressive for having come two days after the birth of his second child. A mad dash to Whitstable on the Thursday evening, a new arrival and a rush back to the ground on Friday, and now a career best score on the Saturday: Denly will certainly rue those six missed runs, but at the end of one of the most momentous weeks of his life, perhaps it was no surprise that his innings eventually ran out of puff.
There were runs, too, for Jos Buttler at No 6, which will now surely be his position for, oh, at least the next few weeks. Important runs, too: not just in the context of his own underwhelming series, but in the context of the game. Coming in after the loss of two quick wickets, Buttler’s counter-punching 47 swung the momentum back towards England, helping them carve out an imposing lead that should be impregnable.
And yet. And yet. Even with a target near or even in excess of 400, the spectre of Steve Smith continues to loom over this game, as it has loomed over the entire series. It would be strangely fitting if Smith were to have the last word here, and on the evidence of his four slip catches, each better than the last, his determination to influence proceedings remains as sharp as ever. The surface remains extremely good for batting, and there shall be no rest for England until either Smith or all 10 of his team-mates have been put back in the dressing room. A surprisingly poor fourth-innings average of 31 will give England some faint encouragement.
Meanwhile, if there were any lingering suspicions that Australia’s cutting edge might have been dulled, they were firmly put to bed in that final session, in which they took six wickets and kept alive their flickering hopes of winning the series outright. Indeed, had Tim Paine reviewed two LBW decisions earlier in the day that would have resulted in dismissals, Australia’s chase might already have begun.
For a quasi-dead rubber at the end of a season that feels like it began sometime in the late 2000s, the standard of cricket in this match has actually been very good. England certainly began the day with plenty of intent, Denly biffing Nathan Lyon back over his head for four and six and getting the scoreboard moving early. England seemed set on attacking Lyon and Peter Siddle, Australia’s change bowlers, and despite losing Burns and Joe Root to Lyon, it largely worked. Paine was forced to return to Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins far more than he would have wanted to.
The afternoon belonged to Denly and Ben Stokes. Taking full advantage of the quick outfield and the lack of lateral movement, the pair put on 127 for the third wicket, building the lead to almost 300. The wicket of Stokes for 67, bowled by a ripper from Lyon, came at a crucial time: another hour, and Australia would probably have been batted out of the match.
Now Siddle, having looked extremely underwhelming all match, returned with a much better spell. Going wider on the crease in an attempt to mess with Denly’s alignment, and with Paine standing up to the stumps, he had a strong LBW shout turned down before finally finding a thin edge, pouched by Smith at slip. As he walked off, six short of a maiden Test century, Denly tried hard to mask his distress. He will certainly get another chance, but he may never get a better one.
Jonny Bairstow ended an indifferent series with another indeterminate score and Sam Curran tickled one down the leg side, but at 305-6 England were still in supreme control. That changed in the space of two electrifying deliveries that produced two electrifying catches: one from Smith, flying to his right to grab Chris Woakes’s flashing drive, and one from Marnus Labuschagne, tumbling forward at deep square leg to dismiss the dangerous Buttler.
And so, just a glimmer of hope for Australia. No team has ever chased more than 263 to win a Test here, but plenty have come close to targets of 400 and more: not least India last year, who gave England an almighty scare by reaching 325-5 in pursuit of 464. In any case, The Oval will certainly be packed out again: a capacity crowd, eager to see if this wild and oscillating series has one final twist.
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