Australia were within touching distance of capturing the World Test Championship title as India’s hopes of chasing down a monumental 444-run victory target appeared to be slipping away after they ended day four on 164-3 on Saturday.
When Australia captain Pat Cummins declared their second innings on 270-8, the challenge that lay ahead for India looked insurmountable.
With Shubman Gill (18), Rohit Sharma (43) and Cheteshwar Pujara (27) back in the pavilion and the deficit cut by only 93 runs, many were left wondering if India would even be able to stretch the match into a fifth day.
Indian fans will do well to block out the statistics listed in the record books which suggest they have been set a mission impossible.
India will have to pull off the highest-ever successful fourth-innings run chase if they are to win their first global ICC trophy in 10 years.
West Indies set the record when they chased down 418 to beat Australia in Antigua in 2003.
India’s task looks even more daunting since the highest-ever successful run chase at The Oval is 263, which England achieved against Australia more than a century ago, in 1902.
However, following Australia’s declaration, India came out fighting, with skipper Sharma timing the ball sweetly as he stroked a number of boundaries and even launched a spectacular six.
But by tea, they were down one man after Cameron Green took a spectacular, if controversial, left-handed diving catch to dismiss opener Gill from a Scott Boland delivery. Multiple video replays failed to confirm whether the ball had brushed the ground before Green completed the catch.
While Indian fans made their feelings known by shouting “cheat, cheat, cheat”, Australia wicketkeeper Alex Carey said: “I thought he caught it fair and square. It looked good from where I was, and he was really happy with it. The right decision was made.”
A livid Sharma, though, was not convinced and his protests to the umpires fell on deaf ears as Gill trudged off.
When Sharma and Pujara were dismissed within the space of six deliveries to leave India teetering on 93-3, there were fears India were heading for a repeat of their first-innings collapse.
Former captain Virat Kohli (44 not out) and Ajinkya Rahane (20 not out) made sure they survived the remaining overs and will be hoping to pull off a miracle on Sunday by surviving Australia’s relentless bowling onslaught.
Earlier in the day, Australia stuck to their tactic of “crawling” towards setting India a big victory target.
Resuming on 123-4, slow-and-steady was the order of the day as Marnus Labuschagne (41) swallowed up 126 balls, Green (25) faced 95 deliveries and Alex Carey frustrated the Indian bowlers for 105 balls to remain unbeaten on 66.
Indian fans started dancing down the aisles when Labuschagne stood at the crease in disbelief after being caught at first slip in the third over of the day.
After suffering a couple of painful body blows, Labuschagne appeared bamboozled by fast bowler Umesh Yadav’s delivery as he nicked it straight into the palms of Pujara.
He took 126 balls to score 41 and his exit with the Australians on 124-5 sparked chants of “India jeetega, jeetega” (India will win) around the ground.
Green and Carey blocked out the hullabaloo as they cautiously built up Australia’s lead to 340 runs when India finally made another breakthrough.
Facing spinner Ravindra Jadeja, Green failed to play a shot and the ball spun sharply on to his pad and glove before knocking off the bails to the astonishment of the batsman.
Once Australia had opened up a 400-run lead, Carey and Mitchell Starc started to play more freely before pace bowler Mohammed Shami ended their 93-run partnership.
Starc clipped the ball to Kohli at first slip to fall for 41 and after Cummins lasted five balls to score five, he declared the innings.