There were two interpretations of Australia’s slightly torrid third morning in the World Test Championship final as India’s lower order fought back at The Oval to add 144 runs for the last four wickets of their first innings,
The first was that, in their three dropped catches — including one very tricky one shelled by Usman Khawaja — and Pat Cummins having a wicket overturned because of overstepping for the second consecutive day, Australia had shown a scintilla of weakness. And, during the gallivanting seventh-wicket partnership between Ajinkya Rahane and Shardul Thakur, Australia indeed mislaid the ruthlessness for which they are renowned.
Yet the second interpretation, which England fans will not relish, is perhaps more compelling. Even with the old ball in fine batting conditions, and Rahane and Thakur combining impressively, Australia still produced four chances — to go with Scott Boland clean bowling Srikar Bharat with the second ball of the day — in the first session. If they continue to produce opportunities with such regularity, you suspect, Australia will not be so generous in letting them go.
No matter these errors, Australia still secured a commanding first-innings lead of 173 runs. By the end of day three, that had been extended to 296 with six wickets in hand. In all probability, victory in the second World Test Championship final awaits.
Throughout India’s innings, Cummins provided a distillation of the qualities that make him a threat anytime, anywhere. His hallmarks were all evident: the smart use of the crease to prevent batsmen from safely leaving the ball alone; the movement off the seam, often with the wobble-ball; and the simple mastery of line and length. But there was also a hint of a slight vulnerability: a growing penchant for no-balls.
In the last over before lunch, Cummins jagged a ball back to Thakur, which was adjudged lbw. Shardul’s review revealed that the ball would have clipped the top of leg stump — but this was moot, because he had overstepped. It was Cummins’ second wicket overturned for overstepping, after Rahane on the second evening.
For Cummins, no-balls have become slightly more frequent. In his first 30 Tests, he bowled just 12 no-balls. In his next 20, Cummins has bowled 28 no-balls. The increased frequency of his no-balls has coincided with the auto no-ball rule — under which the third umpire, rather than the on-field umpires, calls front-foot no-balls — coming into effect in 2020.
Never has Cummins bowled as many no-balls in a Test innings as the six he did against India. The most simple explanation, perhaps, is simply that Cummins is relocating his rhythm: this was his first bowl in any match since the second Test in Delhi, three and a half months ago. Ideally, Cummins would have had a warm-up match to prepare for the Test Championship final; instead, the game has also doubled as Australia’s final excursion before the Ashes.
“I just think it’s the fact that he’s probably not back into full game mode yet and not back into his full rhythm,” observed Ricky Ponting, the former Australian captain. “But as the day went on, he did look a little bit better.”
Cummins is such a menace that, even shy of his absolute best, he still provided a persistent threat, ending with three for 83. He finally dislodged Rahane thanks to a magnificent catch from Cameron Green, diving to his right at gully, just after lunch: a moment that suggested that Australia are unlikely to repeat their early morning sloppiness later in the Ashes.
Rahane’s 89 fully vindicated his recall and showed his prowess against pace, which explains why he fares better away than in India. To the delight of India’s vociferous support, Rahane was backed up by his side’s attack. David Warner succumbed for one, pushing Mohammed Siraj behind; Ravindra Jadeja claimed Steve Smith, uncharacteristically trying to launch the ball over the top after using his feet, before acrobatically claiming Travis Head caught-and-bowled. It all had the feel of coming too late.
India have some remarkable batsmen. But against Australia’s attack, they will need to produce something outlandish deeds if they are to avoid defeat for a second consecutive World Test Championship final.