The Indians were expected to capitulate without a fight, but Ajinkya Rahane and Shardul Thakur had other ideas. With every minute of resistance, the decibel level from the crowd increased.
At the stroke of lunch, the loudest roar came when Pat Cummins kicked the ball. Cummins was understandably angry, having been called for a no-ball when he had Shardul trapped plumb in front. The Indian flag filled the stands, as the 25,170-strong crowd took delight in Australia’s agony. The atmosphere at The Oval was electric, in stark contrast to the sullen faces at the start of play.
Rahane (89, 129b, 11x4, 1x6) and Shardul (51, 109b, 6x4) put on 109 runs for the seventh wicket, raising India’s hopes of salvaging an honourable draw. The duo’s heroics helped India avoid the follow-on and finish with 296.
Australia moved to 123 for four at close, an overall lead of 296 runs. Cummins’ men continue to sit in the driver’s seat, but the Indians have shown the stomach for a fight.
It was a memorable comeback for Rahane, who last played a Test around 18 months ago. He was all class, hitting shots all around the ground. He reached his fifty with a powerful hook shot off Cummins which sailed into the stands over fine-leg.
When off-spinner Nathan Lyon was brought into the attack, Rahane came into his own. He cut the short balls, and strode well forward to punish anything full. The Mumbai batter made a strong case for cementing his spot in the eleven.
Shardul was not as flamboyant with his strokeplay, but more than made up with grit. Shardul copped back-to-back blows to the arm, which only strengthened his resolve. The 31-year-old recorded his third consecutive Test fifty at this venue.
Both Rahane and Shardul were lucky to benefit from a dropped catch each. Cameron Green, who had put one down earlier, pulled off a stunning one-handed grab at gully to end Rahane’s stay. The carnival ended for the spectators, who rose for one final applause as Rahane walked back. Green then scalped Shardul with a length delivery outside off which took the edge.
Australia’s second essay started shakily, with David Warner snapped up by wicketkeeper K.S. Bharat off Mohammed Siraj in the fourth over. Usman Khawaja, out for a duck in the first innings, disappointed again. The southpaw flung his bat at a wide ball from Umesh and offered Bharat another catch.
Steve Smith (34, 47b, 3x4) had a ‘brain fade’ moment when he charged at Ravindra Jadeja and attempted a wild slog. The shot, completely out of character for this batter of high pedigree, ballooned to Shardul at point.
Travis Head took one chance too many. A heavy-handed drive gave Jadeja a simple return catch. Marnus Labuschagne (41 n.o., 118b, 4x4) held firm. He received a couple of snorters from Siraj, but with the use of soft hands, managed to drop the ball gently to the ground. There was a lesson here for Virat Kohli, who went hard at a rising delivery and spooned a catch to slip on Thursday.
The fate of the match now depends on how the Indian batters fare. Rahane and Shardul have shown the way for the rest to follow.