Australia lose three wickets in pursuit of record target
If Australia are to achieve their coveted five-nil Ashes whitewash by winning the fifth Test in Sydney, they need to score 363 runs on the final day with seven wickets in hand. England declared on 452 for nine in their second innings after Michael Vaughan had taken his score on to 183 and Nasser Hussain reached another valuable seventy to set the home side what would be a record total to win. Before the close, England took the wickets of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting to give themselves every chance of pulling off a win.
The need to break the record for the highest number of runs in the fourth innings to win a Test would not have daunted the Australians as they set out seeking 452 to win. However, the loss of both openers inside the first three overs put a new slant on the equation.
First to go was Langer. He was on the receiving end of a shocking decision from umpire Russell Tiffin as he was adjudged lbw to a ball from Andrew Caddick that pitched clearly outside leg stump. Two balls later, Hayden fell lbw to Matthew Hoggard - a decision that did not please Hayden who reached the sanctity of the dressing room before expressing his feelings. Or perhaps the shattering of a window shortly after his arrival there was a pure coincidence. The ICC match referee, Wasim Raja, thought not and fined Hayden 20% of his match fee and gave him a reprimand. Adam Gilchrist was later given a warning about swearing when an appeal was turned down.
Hoggard might have felt like swearing when he dropped a relatively simple caught and bowled chance offered by Ponting next ball. That error did not prove too costly, however, as Ponting became the third batsman in the innings to be given out leg before. He had scored 11 when he went to Caddick who leapfrogged his old new ball partner Darren Gough to seventh place in England's list of Test wicket-takers.
Australia were 25 for three from six overs at this point, but Damien Martyn joined night watchman Andy Bichel to hold firm until the close. Indeed, Bichel did a bit more than just stay there, going to 49 from 54 balls with eight boundaries to set up what is sure to be a fascinating final day's play in the series.
Earlier in the day, Vaughan and Hussain picked up the momentum of England's innings from the off. Having come together with the total on 124, they advanced it to 313 before they were parted. They had put on 95 runs in the morning session when Hussain edged the penultimate ball before lunch from Brett Lee to Adam Gilchrist to fall for 73.
It appeared as if this wicket might have signalled the start of a terminal collapse, for Lee struck again soon after lunch to have Robert Key caught by Hayden at mid-wicket before, in the next over, Australia got the wicket they wanted when Vaughan was adjudged lbw.
The Yorkshireman appeared destined to turn his third century of the series into a double but, when he was just 17 runs short of that landmark, the combination of a ball from Bichel and umpire Tiffin's ever-alert finger saw Vaughan making his way back to the pavilion. Replays suggested the ball that ended Vaughan's six and a half hour innings containing 27 fours and a six would have passed some way over the stumps.
John Crawley was also lbw, this time to Jason Gillespie, who later left the field in mid-over when he fell awkwardly in his follow through and landed on his left elbow. Richard Dawson was caught and bowled by Bichel while Caddick and Hoggard succumbed to leg-spinner Stuart MacGill to leave England on 409 for nine. It was already a substantial lead, but Hussain wanted more and got them from an unlikely source.
Steve Harmison has never been in danger of being labelled an all-rounder, but he joined Alec Stewart in the middle to flay 20 from 23 balls and Stewart was 38 not out when the captain had the unexpected pleasure of declaring.
The three wickets in the 20 overs before the close have certainly put England in a very strong position, but it would be folly to write off this Australian side yet. It is highly unlikely that Australia will reach their target and almost as unlikely that they can survive with only seven wickets intact on a pitch that will probably deteriorate on the final day. However, this is a remarkable bunch of cricketers and nothing is beyond them. England should be chilling the champagne but would be advised not to open it until the job is done.