The fifth Ashes Test is delicately poised after an eventful opening day at The Oval, but England was let off the hook by a handful of sloppy blunders from Australia in the field.
The visitors dropped five catches as England registered 283 on Thursday, with Australian quick Mitchell Starc snaring four crucial wickets in a vicious spell after lunch. Harry Brook top-scored for the hosts with 85, his fourth half-century of the series, while Chris Woakes provided some valuable runs in a late cameo.
England made early inroads by removing David Warner in the evening session, but Usman Khawaja (26*) and Marnus Labuschagne (2*) guided Australia towards 1-61 at stumps, still trailing by 222 runs.
However, England is sweating on the fitness of Moeen Ali after the spinner suffered a right groin injury during his knock.
MATCH CENTRE: England vs Australia fifth Test scorecard
Australian captain Pat Cummins finally won a toss and elected to bowl first under gloomy skies in London. The tourists made one change to their starting XI for the must-win series finale, with spinner Todd Murphy replacing all-rounder Cameron Green.
Starc hooped an inswinger into Zak Crawley’s pads in the third over, with Australia sending the LBW decision upstairs. However, Hawkeye suggested the ball would have missed off stump, with Cummins wasting an early review.
England’s openers picked up the tempo, with Ben Duckett charging at Josh Hazlewood and thumping the Bendemeer Bullet down the ground for a belligerent boundary.
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Cummins’ first delivery of the morning found Duckett’s outside edge, but David Warner dropped the regulation chance at slip, gifting the left-hander an extra life on 30.
Australia’s frustration grew the following over when Crawley, who was unbeaten on 11, edged an outswinger from Mitchell Marsh towards a vacancy at third slip — Steve Smith dived to his right but couldn’t hold onto the one-handed attempt.
Crawley and Duckett combined for a 62-run partnership before Marsh broke the opening stand in the 12th over, albeit in fortuitous circumstances — Duckett gloved a loose delivery down the leg side to wicketkeeper Alex Carey, departing for 41 after a well-judged review from the Australians.
The visitors struck again the following over, with Crawley looking to fend Cummins into the leg side but instead nicking towards Smith, who swallowed the chance at second slip.
Hazlewood joined the party in the 16th over – the dangerous Joe Root attempted to run the ball down towards third man, but instead chopped back onto his stumps for five.
England had lost 3-11 in 22 balls, but things could have been much worse for the hosts. The following over, Carey bottled a simple catch behind the stumps to deny Cummins a second wicket and hand Brook a massive reprieve on 5.
It proved a costly mistake, with Brook counterattacking before the lunch break. The Yorkshireman cracked three consecutive boundaries against Starc, including an audacious hook shot against the left-armer that flew over deep fine leg for six.
He brought up his half-century in just 44 deliveries before Cummins missed a tough run-out chance at the non-striker’s end, giving Brook another life on 50.
Ali, who was struggling to run between the wickets after hurting his groin, decided his only option was to deal in boundaries — he smacked Cummins for a pair of sixes before an elegant ramp over the wicketkeeper’s head for four.
Brook and Ali put together 109 for the fourth wicket before Murphy struck in his first over of the match, deceiving Ali in the air and bowling the left-hander for 34. The dismissal sparked an ugly collapse of 4-28, with Starc and Hazlewood ripping through England’s middle order.
England captain Ben Stokes was knocked over by a gorgeous Starc outswinger for 3 before Jonny Bairstow chopped on for 4, becoming Hazlewood’s second victim.
Starc ended Brook’s onslaught with a wide wobble-seam delivery that was edged towards Smith at second slip, departing 15 runs short of a maiden Ashes century.
Mark Wood and Chris Woakes reunited after their Headingley heroics, adding valuable runs for the eighth wicket to frustrate the Australians.
Starc thought he had broken the stand when Woakes was given out LBW on 15, but the decision was overturned on review after Snicko showed an inside edge onto the pads. Woakes rubbed salt into the wounds by slapping the following delivery through point for a boundary.
Australia’s fielding woes continued the very next ball when Marsh botched a regulation catch at gully, with Woakes surviving yet again.
Murphy finally broke the 49-run partnership in the 52nd over, bowling Wood for 28 with a delivery that drifted into the top of middle stump. However, the spectacled off-spinner became Australia’s fifth culprit in the field after losing sight of a return chance from Woakes, dropping the fortuitous all-rounder on 25.
Starc wrapped up the tail, removing Stuart Broad for 7 with a bouncer that was top-edged towards mid-wicket and Woakes for 36, caught at deep square leg.
Warner survived an early scare in the third over of Australia’s innings after tickling one of Broad’s deliveries down the leg side, narrowly evading a lunging Bairstow with the gloves.
Later in Broad’s opening spell, England wasted its first unsuccessful review after a short delivery ricocheted off Warner’s shoulder towards Bairstow — replays showed there was no bat involved.
Wood found Warner’s outside edge in the 14th over, but the ball landed agonisingly short of Bairstow, much to England’s frustration.
Australia’s openers combined for the 49-run opening stand before Woakes unearthed the first breakthrough, with Crawley holding onto a superb catch at second slip to send Warner packing for 24.
Labuschagne joined Khawaja in the middle, with the Queenslanders surviving the final 45 minutes to ensure Australia was in the preferred position at stumps.
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