Strauss ton leaves Australia facing huge target
Andrew Strauss sped to his first Ashes century, and his sixth in Tests, as England set Australia an improbable 423 to win the third Test at Old Trafford or, more realistically, left them with just over a day to survive. They safely negotiated the first 10 overs of their task, in fading light, but Ashley Giles and Michael Vaughan both created enough moments of unease to encourage England for the final day.
The performance of both teams today was the epitome of how significantly and dramatically the roles have been reversed in this series. Ricky Ponting wore the face of a captain out of options and out of inspiration. For England the day went almost completely to plan - barring a late wicket that would have capped things off. They wrapped up Australia's first innings in an hour and, with a lead of 142, timed their second innings run-gathering to perfection.
Strauss led the way with a classy 106, and given his lack of form before this innings, it was an even more impressive effort. He began in scratchy fashion and withstood his second blow to the helmet from Brett Lee - this one drawing blood from a cut ear. Moments later he edged a ball to the slips but Ponting and Shane Warne just stood and stared at each other as it flew to the boundary - that was just the start of the fielding nightmare.
For the early part of the innings, however, Strauss was overshadowed by Marcus Trescothick, who gave the innings the perfect tone with a rapid 41. He was unlucky to watch a Glenn McGrath delivery spin back onto his off stump with just enough force to dislodge the bail.
Vaughan top-edged a pull down to fine leg where Brad Hodge, the substitute fielder, ran around and held a superb catch as he skidded on his knees near the boundary rope. However, England were playing with a swagger and confidence that showed they knew just what they had to achieve and would not be too upset with the odd casualty for the cause along the way.
The partnership which anchored the innings then developed between two of the more unlikely candidates for the role; Strauss, who was searching for form, and Ian Bell, who played supremely well in the first innings but a sedate pace. However, both players revelled in an innings where they were allowed to free themselves up. Strauss also found a way to combat Warne, by taking guard on off stump to counter the sharp turn he was extracting from the rough.
Once they reappeared after tea the intention to push on was perfectly clear. None of the Australian bowlers escaped the punishment - even Warne was dispatched for 10 in an over as the batsmen began to chance their arm. Jason Gillespie again suffered as his four overs went for 23, while McGrath was also given a rough time as Bell got into his stride, hoisting him for a straight six and consecutive cover-driven fours.
As Strauss approached his hundred he really began to unleash a full repertoire of shots, with the pull being in especially fine order. He launched a six to enter the nineties and decided not to loiter there long, dispatching another pull, this time for four, to bring up three figures from 151 balls. With the landmark passed it was a free-for-all and Strauss soon holed out to Damien Martyn at deep square-leg. The wicket didn't matter; the shock was that an Australian had actually managed to catch something.
One of the best indicators of a struggling side is when the fielding goes - witness England in any previous Ashes series of the last 15 years. Today, Australia's was completely shot. After missing Strauss in the slips, mis-fields abounded but, the chief culprit was Adam Gilchrist. Geraint Jones was criticised yesterday for his glovework and, this innings, Gilchrist was just as shoddy as he missed two clear stumping chances as Bell came down the track. Warne may soon been needing some extra hair transplants after the handfuls he was pulling out at his bowling mark.
The Australians had nowhere to hide - as hard as Ponting tried to bury his head in his hands - and in the end the crowd cheered every ball that was fielded cleanly. After Strauss and Bell had run them ragged in their stand of 127, McGrath finally managed to pick up a flurry of wickets but they were of little consequence with England just trying to reach their declaration. McGrath's figures were given a final dent as Jones smote 27 from 13 balls, sending England running off the field on a high. Australia skulked off, glad to be able to retreat to the dressing-room.
Warne was looking particularly peeved at the situation and had worn a similar impression when he fell 10 runs short of a maiden Test century during the morning session. With support from Gillespie - who faced 111 balls - he was on course, but planted Simon Jones's second ball of the day down deep square-leg's throat.
Jones wrapped up the innings to finish with Test-best figures of 6 for 53 and, after another dominant display from England's batsmen, it will be down to him and the rest of the attack to try and take 10 wickets on the final day and put England 2-1 up in the series. If that happens Ponting and Warne really will have something to worry about.
Shane Warne c Giles b S Jones 90 (287 for 8)
Short ball, thumped into the deep, midwicket didn't have to move
Brett Lee c Trescothick b S Jones 1 (293 for 9)
Thick edge to first slip
Jason Gillespie lbw b S Jones 26 (302 all out)
Beaten for pace by the new ball
Marcus Trescothick b McGrath 41 (64 for 1)
Dropped at his feet, backspin, onto stumps
Michael Vaughan c sub (Hodge) b Lee 14 (97 for 2)
Top edge to fine leg who ran around
Andrew Strauss c Martyn b McGrath 106 (224 for 3)
Pulled to deep square-leg
Kevin Pietersen lbw b McGrath 0 (225 for 4)
Missed a full toss from round the wicket
Andrew Flintoff b McGrath 4 (248 for 5)
Missed a heave to leg
Ian Bell c Katich b McGrath 65 (264 for 6)
Holed out to long-off
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo