England set the stage for a series-levelling victory on day three of the final Ashes Test, with new father Joe Denly leading the way with a career-best 94.
Denly, who joined wife Stacy for the birth of their second child after play on Thursday night, would have loved to mark a memorable week with a maiden century but, as consolation prizes go, his knock at The Oval will take some beating.
Betraying no signs of sleeplessness the 33-year-old not only made a strong case for his international career to continue this winter – far from a done deal when he walked to the crease – but also played a decisive role in England’s 382-run lead at stumps.
In piling up 313 for eight at stumps, Ben Stokes (67) and Jos Buttler (47) with the key supporting roles, the home side made themselves heavy favourites to make it 2-2 at some point over the next two days.
To achieve their goal of a first outright win on these shores in 18 years Australia need to produce a chase considerably better than the 359 Stokes improbably hunted down at Headingley, though Steve Smith’s presence at number four makes just about anything possible.
Smith, who has 751 runs in six innings, refuses to stay out of the game and here claimed four catches at slip including one quite brilliant leaping one-hander late in the day.
But Australia were far from flawless in the field, with captain Tim Paine’s declining to review sound lbw appeals against Denly on 54 and Buttler on 19 while Stokes survived a couple of tricky chances.
Denly had been dropped on nought late on the second evening and there was a sense of freedom to his early strokeplay, with he and Rory Burns settling in with some nerve-settling early boundaries.
The introduction of Nathan Lyon only accelerated things, Denly skipping down the track twice in his first over of the day loft the spinner back down the ground for four and six.
When Burns punched Peter Siddle down the ground it brought up the first half-century opening stand all summer, a modest hill that had become an Everest for these sides.
Burns fell for 20 shortly afterwards, groping at a long-hop from Lyon and feathering into Paine’s gloves.
Denly set out his stall to bat out the session, reaching lunch on 37 from 101 balls, but captain Joe Root made an unconvincing 21 before falling 10 minutes before the break. It was an innocuous off-break from Lyon, doing little more than holding its line but pinging to slip as Root pushed forward.
The lead stood at 157 at the interval, with England’s position only strengthened by their eight wickets in hand.
The afternoon’s play saw the hosts advance their case to the tune of 105 runs without further loss as Denly and Stokes combined several slices of luck with increasingly fluent strokeplay.
Stokes offered a clear chance on seven when he rocked back and edged a cut straight at Smith, who grassed a brisk chance at head height.
Lyon was the unlucky bowler and was soon counting the cost, Stokes picking up four from a mis-field then sweeping the next delivery for six into the Peter May Stand.
Denly secured a fourth half-century in England whites with a neat flick off the pads but had a heart-in-mouth moment soon after, Mitchell Marsh forcing one into his back pad.
His appeal was long and passionate but it was waved away by Marais Erasmus before Paine declined to review. When the replays were ready, they confirmed Marsh’s suspicions.
The scoreboard kept ticking but Stokes might have run himself out twice had Australia managed better throws and on 52 found himself grateful that substitute fielder Cameron Bancroft failed to pull off one of his trademark grabs at short-leg.
Stokes started the evening at a bullish tempo but when he was undone by a superb Lyon delivery, ripping past the bat and into off stump, all eyes were on Denly. He had ticked off his previous best of 69 and taken tea on 82.
He got within one blow of three figures – albeit an ambitious one – but could not get there, squared up by Siddle and nicking off. The ball flicked Paine’s thigh, with the wicketkeeper standing up, but did not get past Smith.
He prodded forlornly at the turf as he reluctantly left, but his efforts left the team 291 ahead.
Proceedings sped up thereafter, with 91 runs and four wickets moving the script along. Jonny Bairstow, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes came and went swiftly, the latter courtesy of Smith’s stunning reactions, but Buttler’s sweet timing kept England on top.
He was last out to another fine catch, from Marnus Labuschagne, leaving Jofra Archer and Jack Leach in place at the close.