London — Australia remained in command of the World Test Championship final against India despite an error-strewn display at The Oval on Friday.
Ravindra Jadeja removed first-innings century-makers Steve Smith and Travis Head but a third day of dropped catches, wickets off no-balls and rash shots still ended with Australia 296 runs ahead at 123-4 in their second innings.
Marnus Labuschagne, the world’s top-ranked Test batsman, survived several painful blows on a pitch of variable bounce to be 41 not out at stumps.
“We have quite a formidable score already but you just never know,” Labuschagne told BBC Radio.
The 28-year-old added: “My hands are just about hanging on. I’ve got good bone density. It is lively out there, and that does make it challenging when they bounce like that off a length, but that happens as a batter and you’ve just got to find a way through it.”
This match is taking place just a week before Australia face England in an Ashes opener at Edgbaston.
We’re certainly not taking this game as Ashes preparation,“ said Labuschagne. ”But it is certainly handy to have a Test of this calibre before a very big series.“
When Scott Boland knocked over Srikar Bharat’s stumps with just the second ball of the day, India were 317 runs behind with only four first-innings wickets standing.
But Ajinkya Rahane (89) and Shardul Thakur (51) then made the most of Australia’s mistakes during a seventh-wicket stand of 109 before India were eventually dismissed for 296.
Australia captain Pat Cummins took 3-83 in his 20 overs but his figures would have been better but for six no-balls.
“We made a bit of a meal of it in the morning,” said Labuschagne. “Pat just addressed it, said we weren’t good enough and we’ve all played enough cricket to know that was fair.”
Rahane insisted all was not lost for India.
“Australia are slightly ahead of the game,” he told Sky Sports. “In the morning the first hour will be very crucial. We know funny things can happen.”
Australia were 2-1 when the under-pressure David Warner, who had managed just one century in his previous 33 Test innings, was caught behind off Mohammed Siraj.
Usman Khawaja, Warner’s opening partner, fell cheaply for the second time this match when, on 13, he followed a first-innings duck by being caught behind carelessly edging a wide ball from paceman Umesh Yadav.
Left-arm spinner Jadeja then removed Smith and Head, although both batsmen played a part in their own downfall.
Star batsman Smith had spent just over five-and-a-half hours at the crease for 121 in Australia’s first-innings 469.
But on Friday he gave his wicket away for 34 when he skied a drive off Jadeja to cover.
Head’s dynamic 163 had established Australia’s strong position in the final. He continued to attack on Friday, only for a quickfire 18 to end when, attempting a booming drive against the turn out of the rough, his miscued shot gave Jadeja a simple return catch.
Earlier, both Rahane and Thakur were struck by nasty blows, while all-rounder Thakur was dropped twice in single figures, including on eight when he edged Cummins to gully only for Cameron Green to floor a straightforward chance.
And just before lunch Thakur appeared lbw to fast bowler Cummins only for a review to reveal a no-ball.
Rahane, who would have been lbw for 17 on Thursday but for another Cummins no-ball, hooked the Australia skipper for a sweetly timed six to complete a 92-ball fifty – a shot greeted by raucous cheers from a sun-drenched and India-dominated crowd of morw than 25 000.
Rahane was reprieved again on 72 when he edged Cummins only for wicketkeeper Alex Carey not to commit to a catch, with first slip Warner unable to hold onto a desperate left-hand grab.
But Rahane was denied a hundred in his first Test in more than a year after an edge off Cummins was brilliantly caught one-handed by a diving Green in the gully.