The Ashes 2023: England and Australia locked in tight battleon July 28, 2023 at 6:08 pm

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England’s final Ashes Test against Australia hangs in the balance after a compelling battle for control on the second day at The Oval.

Fifth LV= Insurance Ashes Test, The Kia Oval (day two of five)
England 283 (Brook 85, Duckett 41, Starc 4-82)
Australia 295 (Smith 71, Woakes 3-61)
Australia are 12 runs ahead

With Australia almost devoid of any intent to score, England gradually made inroads in a superb bowling display to reduce the tourists to 185-7.

Marnus Labuschagne set the tone by taking 82 balls over his nine but after he was spectacularly caught by Joe Root at first slip, England struck at regular intervals.

Steve Smith, who continued his fine record on this ground with 71, reversed the momentum and set Australia on course for a slender advantage.

Smith added 54 with Pat Cummins, with the skipper himself then sharing a vital 49 with Todd Murphy, who made an enterprising 34.

The final act was a wonderful boundary catch by England captain Ben Stokes to dismiss Cummins for 36, leaving Australia 295 all out and leading by 12 runs.

England’s seam bowlers were collectively excellent, their performance all the more impressive given the fact off-spinner Moeen Ali played no part because of a groin injury. Chris Woakes enjoyed most success, picking up 3-61.

It left the fifth Test of a wonderful series beautifully poised, with England’s chances of levelling at 2-2 almost identical to Australia’s hopes of winning 3-1.

Arm-wrestle at The Oval

If England’s romp to 283 in less than 55 overs ensured day one was never short of incident, day two was a more sedate arm-wrestle punctuated by moments of theatre.

Root’s stunning catch to remove Labuschagne, Stuart Broad whipping up the crowd and taking two wickets in as many overs, sub fielder George Ealham producing shades of Gary Pratt to almost run out Smith and Stokes’ grand finale were the standouts.

But the overriding theme was the passive nature of Australia’s crawl towards England’s total.

The slow plod could have been a response to the quality of the bowling, the difficulty of the conditions, a desire to be the antithesis of England’s swashbuckling style, or a combination of all three. Either way, Australia almost batted themselves into trouble.

Only Smith, who went past Don Bradman’s 553 runs at The Oval to become the leading overseas run-scorer on this ground, batted at anything like his normal tempo and, in doing so, kept the tourists afloat with the help of Cummins and Murphy.

The match is now set up to be shaped by England’s second innings, which will begin when play resumes on the third morning.

England have the opportunity to set a target beyond Australia’s reach, the tourists a chance to dismiss England cheaply for a comfortable fourth-innings chase.

Given the nature of the series, a tight finish to this Test is most likely and would be most fitting.

Australia flirt with danger

Whatever was the intention of Australia’s approach, it almost backfired. At 61-1 from 25 overs overnight, there was rarely a sign to push the game along on Friday and it played into England’s hands.

The tourists did not score their first runs off the bat until the 27th ball of the day. The 47.4 overs it took them to reach 100 was the longest in an Ashes Test for 33 years. At the 54.4 overs England were all out for 283, Australia were 130-4.

Australia’s caution would not have been a problem had they batted England out of the game. But, given the movement that was present for most of the day, bowlers were always likely to create chances and England took them.

Labuschagne complained it was too dark after he edged Wood, yet the light was plenty good enough for Root to take his magnificent catch. Khawaja, barely awake in compiling 47 from 157 balls, and Travis Head fell to the fired-up Broad just after lunch. Mitchell Marsh and Alex Carey found limp ways to get out.

Smith, though, played sweet straight drives and found good support from Cummins. Smith survived the tight run out on 44, Cummins overturned being given lbw to Broad with the second new ball on 10.

After Smith’s uncharacteristic swipe at Woakes resulted in a leading edge skied to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow, Murphy hooked three sixes to drag Australia into the lead.

Murphy was leg-before to Woakes and England turned to Root in the dying moments. Cummins lofted towards long-on and Stokes, on the ground of his famous catch in the 2019 World Cup, athletically did the rest.

England persist to stay in contest

England’s total felt no better than par, so the hosts needed their bowlers to keep them in the contest. To a man, they responded.

As ever in Ashes Tests, the showman was Broad, who found ways to affect the game even when he was not bowling.

In an apparent attempt to change England’s luck, he performed a usual Broad trick – switching the bails just before Labuschagne took strike. The next ball Root took his breath-taking grab, a reflex effort one-handed to his left to give a first wicket to Wood, who later bounced out Mitchell Starc.

When Broad was bowling, he was a constant threat. Khawaja was palpably leg before and Head edged behind. The double strike returned Broad to the top of the series’ wicket-taking chart with 20 scalps.

James Anderson, under scrutiny for his lack of success in the series, was relentless and deserved more than the drag-on by Marsh. Woakes gave nothing away and got the key wickets of Smith and Murphy while Root filled in for Moeen to take 2-20.

Perhaps England’s only error was the failure to run out Smith, when the score would have been 195-8.

After Ealham’s rapid retrieve and throw, TV umpire Nitin Menon adjudged Smith not out amid confusion whether Bairstow had broken the stumps too early or the Australia vice-captain had just done enough to make his ground. Either way, Smith would definitely have been out had Bairstow taken the throw in front of the stumps.

If that was a minor mistake, then Stokes’ catch was a final act of brilliance from what turned out to be the last delivery.

Knowing his momentum would carry the ball over the rope, Stokes threw it in the air, went outside and then back inside the boundary to complete the catch. It was a devilishly difficult piece of fielding made to look outstandingly simple.

‘I would love to see us score 300’ – what they said

England bowler Jimmy Anderson speaking to BBC’s Test Match Special: “It’s a very level game. It feels like it’s come down to a one-innings match. Getting into the position we did, we’re a little disappointed they got past us. Pat [Cummins] and [Todd] Murphy batted really well in the end. All in all, a really good day for the bowlers.

“We want to get a challenging total to make it hard for them to chase down. I can’t see us going and batting differently, we’ve got very positive players who want to go and show their skills.

“I can’t see it deteriorating much, we’re without Mo which is a big blow. I would love to see us put on 300+.”

Australia batter Steve Smith, speaking to TMS: “It’s ebbed and flowed the whole way, we’re pretty disappointed, the wicket itself was good, played pretty nice. A few of us got good starts but couldn’t go and get a big score. 12 runs in front, it’s a one-innings game from here pretty much.

“I thought they bowled well. They didn’t give us too many boundary scoring opportunities.”

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