Veteran opener David Warner was dismissed cheaply in a testing spell from Mohammed Siraj as Australia reached 23/1 in 11 overs of second innings at tea on day three of World Test Championship final against India at The Oval, here on Friday.
Effectively, Australia are leading by 196 runs, after taking a vital 173-run lead by bowling out India for 296 in first innings.
At 152/6 in the first over of the day, 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 a fighting 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 efforts of Rahane and Thakur as well as erratic bowling and sloppy fielding from Australia, they were dealt a huge blow in the start of second session 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.
India had a breakthrough in the fourth over when Mohammed Siraj got his wobble-seam delivery to seam away and David Warner, shaping to play a drive, got a thick edge which was grabbed by KS Bharat moving low to his left.
Siraj and Shami looked more threatening with their usage of short balls by consistently hitting gloves of Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne, with square leg stationed. The left-right batting duo survived two big mix-ups apart from Khawaja being squared up by Siraj and Shami trying to trouble Labuschagne with deliveries angled in.
Amidst all this, Khawaja managed to emphatically pull Siraj twice for boundaries. Labuschagne tried to disturb the lengths of Shardul Thakur by batting a yard outside his crease. But India countered it with Bharat standing up to the wicket as Australia ended a probing session with no more fall of wickets.
Brief Scores: Australia 469 in 121.3 overs and 23/1 in 11 overs (Usman Khawaja 13 not out; Mohammad Siraj 1/14) lead India 296 in 69.4 overs (Ajinkya Rahane 89, Shardul Thakur 51; Pat Cummins 3/83, Nathan Cameron Green) by 196 runs.