Steve Smith survived a run-out scare and Australia took a 12-run first-innings lead at stumps on Friday in the fifth and final Ashes Test which England must win to level the series. (More Cricket News)
Smith came desperately close to being run out at the Oval by substitute fielder George Ealham in a pivotal moment on the second day.
Australia was 295 all out off the final ball of the day as Smith top-scored with 71 following a scare just after tea. Ealham, the 21-year-old son of former England all-rounder Mark Ealham, looked to have replicated Ricky Ponting’s famous 2005 dismissal by the unknown Gary Pratt, combining with wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow to leave Smith diving for the line.
Steve Smith initially looked out but, instead of departing for 44 and leaving his side 195-8, he was reprieved by TV umpire Nitin Menon. Replays suggested Bairstow had begun to nudge one of the bails loose with his arm before collecting the ball cleanly and there was some debate over whether either bail was fully dislodged before Smith’s bat slid home.
“It was pretty tight, but when I looked the second time it looked like Jonny might have knocked the bail before the ball came in,” Smith said. “It looked a close one but it got given not out, didn’t it?”
What mattered most was the “Not out” decision that appeared on the big screen and the 100 more runs scored by Australia which followed.
Australia had embarked on go-slow tactics in the morning session, followed by a jittery collapse in the afternoon before recovering in the evening.
Having watched England blaze 283 in almost 55 overs, Australia crept just above that mark in 103.1, with Ben Stokes taking an excellent two-stage boundary catch off Joe Root to dismiss Pat Cummins and end the innings in the closing moments.
The Aussies lead the series 2-1 and have already retained the Ashes. They can win the series outright by avoiding defeat here.
England received an early blow on the second day when it was confirmed specialist spinner Moeen Ali would not field.
Moeen sustained a groin injury during his knock of 34 on day one and was not able to field during Australia’s innings.
Australia had come out with nothing but survival on its mind, Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne scoring just 13 runs off the bat in a first hour that tested English patience in the field and in the stands.
Labuschagne scored nine off 82 deliveries with Mark Wood finally drawing the outside edge England had spent almost 90 minutes probing for. It looked a regulation catch for Bairstow but he froze on the spot, leaving Joe Root to hurl himself into action at first slip and claim a brilliant one-handed grab. That was the height of the pre-lunch entertainment, with the scoreboard trudging to 115-2 by the break.
The limitations of that approach were exposed in the afternoon, with England taking five for 71 to take control of proceedings. Stuart Broad played the role of ringleader, dismissing Khawaja (47) and Travis Head (4) in successive overs to inject some electricity into a game that had gone to sleep.
Khawaja had spent more than four-and-a-half hours in defiance when Broad speared one in from round the wicket and trapped the left-hander in front of leg. Five balls later the seamer was celebrating again, challenging Head outside off stump and getting the nick.
England continued burrowing through the middle order as James Anderson belatedly opened his account for the match in the 16th over, bowling Mitch Marsh off a hefty inside edge.
The mistakes kept coming, Alex Carey (10) chipping Root’s tempter to short cover and Mitchell Starc flapping Wood straight up in the air.
Smith was shaping up to be the key figure as he reached tea on 40, but he came desperately close to a self-inflicted dismissal.
Turning back for a second as Ealham sprinted in from the deep and flung a flat throw to the keeper, he looked to be struggling as he dived for his ground.
Replays initially seemed to seal his fate, with his bat short of the crease line as the stumps were broken. He was halfway to the pavilion when he sensed something might be amiss, with the slow-motion footage suggesting Bairstow had nudged one bail loose before gathering the ball in and parting the stumps.
The images were scrutinized for a couple of minutes, analyzing when and where the bails left their grooves, before Menon ruled in Smith’s favor. Smith added another 44 before sending Chris Woakes over his shoulder to Bairstow, who did his work well this time.
“I don’t know the rules to be honest. I think there was enough grey area to give that not out,” England bowler Stuart Broad said. “What are the rules? Was it the right decision? It looked like benefit-of-the-doubt sort of stuff. The first angle I saw I thought ‘out’ and then with the side angle it looked like the bails probably dislodged.”
England should still have taken a lead into the third day but struggled to mop up the tail. Pat Cummins made an assured 36 and Todd Murphy landed three sixes on his way to 34.
Woakes had the skipper lbw late on and Root finished things off when Stokes affected a smart catch-and-release take on the boundary to dismiss Murphy.
England will bat again on day three, with barely an inch to separate the sides.