Aggressive England open up victory chance
Australia 263 and 88 for 2 (Watson 34*, Hussey 18*) trail England 376 (Strauss 69, Bell 53, Flintoff 74, Broad 55, Hilfenhaus 4-109) by 25 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Most assumed England would take a series lead into Headingley, but only the true believers considered a 2-0 scoreline possible. In a match that has seen five-and-a-half sessions lost to rain, light and a water-logged outfield, England have somehow found enough time to exploit Australian frailties to the point where the most improbable of victories is now within view, albeit still some way off in the distance.
A 113-run first innings lead, reduced to 25 by stumps, and a positive weather forecast for Monday have provided England with a realistic chance to land a potential knockout blow in the series. It is difficult to imagine a besieged, unbalanced and out-of-sorts Australian side scrambling from the canvas if faced with a two-game deficit with two matches to play, and England will arrive at Edgbaston for the final day acutely aware that early wickets could prove the defining moment in reclaiming the Ashes after a two-year absence.
Standing in their path is an Australian batting line-up two-wickets down and short on confidence following first innings collapses at Lord's and Edgbaston. Exempt from that list is Shane Watson, the rookie opener, who followed an impressive first innings half-century with an unbeaten 34 on Sunday evening that grew in importance with each falling wicket. He will be joined by the less convincing Michael Hussey who, despite battling for form, clawed his way to 18 not out and steadied the Australian ship in a tense final session.
Australia will draw inspiration from their stoic, though ultimately unsuccessful, fourth innings performance at Lord's as they seek to bat out the final day, while England will be buoyed by more recent performances. In both innings of this Test, the Duke has swung from around the 30-over mark, and with 28 on the ball already and cloudy conditions forecast, James Anderson and Graham Onions will be relied upon heavily.
Victory at Edgbaston set England on course for a famous series triumph four years ago, and while circumstances and certain cast members differ this time around, the white-knuckled expectancy of the vociferous crowd was distinctly similar. Onions' dismissal of Simon Katich to a prod outside off-stump prompted roars that rattled the foundations of the Eric Hollies Stand, and Graeme Swann's removal of Ricky Ponting, fast assuming pantomime villain status on this tour, evoked a response that might have been detected by seismologists half a world away.
Swann posed a threat to Ponting from the moment he marked centre, extracting significant turn from the footmarks and veering the ball sharply into the right-hander. The England spinner was aggrieved to have had a close lbw appeal turned down by Rudi Koertzen, but rediscovered his trademark grin two deliveries later as Ponting pushed with hard hands at a wider delivery that found the rough, angled through the gate and crashed into the stumps. Since his sparkling 150 in Cardiff, Ponting has managed scores of two, 38, 38 and, as of Sunday, five. Australia's batting fortunes have charted a similar course to date.
Earlier, Stuart Broad struck a dashing half-century and engaged in several heated exchanges with Mitchell Johnson during a furious conclusion to England's first innings. The pressure and tension of this most eagerly contested Ashes series bubbled to the surface in the 88th over of England's innings, as Johnson attempted to break through the defences of Broad and Swann.
Johnson engaged in verbal confrontations with both batsmen before claiming Swann's wicket with a deft slower ball; a result that might historically have ended the argument and prompted an England retreat. But in a telling insight into the growing confidence within the hosts' camp, Broad responded two balls later with a back-foot drive and a toe-to-toe confrontation that will no doubt have delighted red-top editors in both countries. The over cost Johnson 15 runs. England's lead extended.
Broad's resistance ended when he spooned a return catch the way of Peter Siddle for a well-struck 55, but his was not the half-century most discussed around the pubs and loungerooms of Birmingham on Sunday. That innings belonged to Andrew Flintoff, who added one more Edgbaston memory to an already rich anthology with a half-century that featured a powerful six to draw England level with Australia's first-innings total, followed by a boundary to overtake it.
At the very ground on which he notched his highest Test score in 2004, and earned Man-of-the-Match honours against the Australians four years ago, Flintoff displayed indomitable intent from the outset by engaging Johnson in verbal combat - a precedent his junior all-rounder would follow later in the day - before channelling his aggression towards his batting.
Siddle and Watson bore the brunt of Flintoff's powerful stroke play, releasing much of the pressure created by Ben Hilfenhaus and Johnson in the first session. Siddle, as has become custom on this tour, interspersed testing inswingers and seamers with too many loose deliveries to concede 47 runs from an erratic seven-over spell. Watson, meanwhile, was set upon from the outset; his comeback spell in Test cricket yielding the unflattering figures of 0 for 23 from three overs.
Flintoff was particularly strong on the drive and pull, and raised the roof at Edgbaston when he bashed Nathan Hauritz into the long-on boundary rope for his first six of the innings. Hauritz exacted a measure of revenge by having him caught at first slip for 74 (from 79 deliveries), but not before Flintoff had guided England past Australia's first-innings total and beyond the 300-run mark.
Prior to Flintoff's 89-run sixth-wicket partnership with Matt Prior, Australia had enjoyed the better of proceedings on a fourth morning delayed by an hour due to a sodden outfield. Hilfenhaus' dismissals of Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood were Australia's primary highlight-reel moments in the first session, but Johnson's two-over burst prior to the lunch break was arguably the greater source of optimism. Australia's selectors have gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate him this series, ranging from pep-talks to the inclusion of an insurance seamer in Watson for Edgbaston, and their faith appeared on the way to being repaid.
His first delivery was full, fast and tailing into Bell, who, if not for the faintest of inside edges onto his pad, might well have been pavilion-bound. Johnson finally got his man when he trapped Bell leg-before as part of a five-over spell of 1 for 12. But much of the good work was undone when, in the confrontational atmosphere of Sunday afternoon, he resorted to his short-length of old and conceded 47 runs from his final seven overs, the majority to Broad and Swann.
Australia's late innings problems were compounded when Hilfenhaus' swing-bowling powers were sapped with the taking of the second new ball. With no one to apply the pressure, England's tail wagged again and Australia, who earlier on Sunday had entertained notions of a first innings lead, were faced with a triple-digit deficit and a near impossible task to level the series heading to Leeds.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo