London, Jun 9 (IANS): Australia managed to take a vital 173-run first innings lead after bowling out India for 296 on day three of World Test Championship final at The Oval, here on Friday.
At 152/6, the fear of India being bowled out quickly and being made to follow-on loomed large. But Ajinkya Rahane, who looked solid on day two and Shardul Thakur shared a superb 109-run partnership off 145 balls for the seventh wicket to lead a superb fightback for India and avoid the ignominy of follow-on.
Rahane, playing in Test cricket for the first time since January 2022, shined on his comeback with a splendid 89, his 26th half-century in the format. Thakur, meanwhile, had luck on his side and survived some blows on his forearm to make a gritty 51, his third consecutive fifty at the venue.
After India made 109/1 in the first session thanks to erratic bowling and sloppy fielding from Australia, they were dealt a huge blow as Rahane punched away from his body off Pat Cummins and Cameron Green dived to his right at gully and stuck out his right hand to complete a one-handed screamer of a catch.
India managed to avoid the follow-on as Umesh Yadav steered Cummins past gully for four, though the Australian skipper bounced back by castling him in the same over. Mohammed Shami indulged in some fun by taking two back-to-back fours off Scott Boland.
Thakur followed it up by driving gloriously through mid-on and mid-off for boundaries against Cummins to reach his fifty in 108 balls. Shortly after, he nicked behind off Green, bringing his fighting knock to an end, followed by a bouncer from Mitchell Starc taking Mohammed Shami's glove edge behind to the keeper moving to his left to end India's innings in 69.4 overs.
Earlier, Rahane was precise in his timing and application to bring out some scintillating stroke play against full and short balls while on his way to be the 13th Indian batter to cross 5000 runs in Test cricket, with Thakur giving him solid company.
Australia struck on the second ball of the day as Boland got the fuller ball to seam in from outside off and castled KS Bharat through the gate. Australia could have got another wicket if Green had taken the tough catch to dismiss Thakur early for eight, after Usman Khawaja dropped the batter's catch on nought.
Thakur was also troubled by high pace and bounce from Pat Cummins, copping blows on his left forearm twice. Rahane was undeterred and played with soft hands to drive in the gap through square of the wicket twice for fours, before hooking outstandingly off Cummins over long leg for six to reach his fifty.
Rahane survived a close lbw appeal off Green, before edging one over slip cordon and leaning into an elegant drive past extra cover to pick back-to-back fours. Thakur wowed the crowd with a smashing cover drive on a juicy half-volley from Starc for four and when the pacer pitched it short, he cracked a stunning cut over point for another boundary.
Rahane got a life at 72 when he really drove hard off Cummins and the edge flew between keeper and first slip, as the latter barely got a hand on the ball after reacting late, and welcomed Nathan Lyon by driving an overpitched delivery through cover-point for four.
Thakur gained more confidence by flicking a half-volley from Cummins past square leg for four. Rahane brought up century of the partnership with a sweet back-foot punch through cover-point off Lyon for four and ended the over with a trademark cover drive for a boundary.
Thakur was trapped lbw on 36 but replays on review showed Cummins had overstepped yet again, giving him and India a huge sigh of relief. He had luck on his side when Australia went for a review for caught-behind, but didn't get an edge and lost their review as the first session ended in India's favour, though their innings was wrapped up in 9.4 overs of second session.
Brief Scores: Australia 469 in 121.3 overs (Travis Head 163; Mohammed Siraj 4/108) lead India 296 in 69.4 overs (Ajinkya Rahane 89, Shardul Thakur 51; Pat Cummins 3/83, Nathan Cameron Green) by 173 runs