England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 3rd day August 3, 2013

Bowlers ready for some heavy lifting

Michael Clarke may have a tricky decision to make over the follow-on but, after an impressive day and with the Ashes at stake, the attack must continue to front up

Halfway through the third day at Old Trafford it was hard to know what looked in worse shape, Jeff Thomson in the crowd or Australia's chances of an Ashes comeback. The TV camera panned into a supporters' tour group and found Thommo, cap askew, hair dishevelled, eyes half closed. Terry Kiser looked perkier in Weekend at Bernie's. But suddenly, Thomson sprung to life; apparently his phone had gone off. Sometimes, all it takes is a trigger.

For the struggling Australians in the middle, that spark came when Ryan Harris nipped the ball back in between bat and pad to clip the top of Ian Bell's off stump. Fast bowlers dream of such dismissals. Australia had found their catalyst. Of course, it is not fair to suggest they had been poor throughout the day, just that Bell and Kevin Pietersen were in sublime touch. And at 2-0 down, Australia couldn't afford their partnership to go from healthy to hefty.

By the close of play, Mitchell Starc had shrugged off his wayward lines to deliver a searching spell of reverse swing that accounted for Pietersen and Jonny Bairstow. It meant that, viewed in isolation, it had actually been a pretty good day for the Australians. A pretty good day might not be enough after the awful ones at Lord's, but it has given them hope.

Their main concern is the workload of the fast men. Australia captains are loath to inflict follow-ons on their bowlers but Michael Clarke will have a difficult choice to make should Australia claim the last three England wickets for less than 34 runs. Never in his Test captaincy career has Clarke made the opposition bat again, though it's not a question he's often been asked.

The only time he had the chance was against India in Adelaide in January 2012, in the last Test of a series that Australia had dominated. Nothing but a clean sweep was at risk if they failed to win. In any case, India were such a rabble that he could afford to let his bowlers rest, knowing that victory was all but inevitable anyway.

At Old Trafford, Australia's life in an Ashes series is at stake. Clarke has no choice but to work his bowlers into the ground over the next two days, whether during a follow-on or after a quick second innings that sets England a chase. Australia have not enforced the follow-on since the Wellington Test of early 2010, when Harris was in the baggy green for the first time. If they do so again at Old Trafford, he may not wear the cap again for a while, given his history of breaking down.

Harris looked spent as he walked off Old Trafford on Saturday. Never has he bowled more overs in a Test than the 44.1 he sent down in the previous match at Lord's, but he might have to match that at Old Trafford. Peter Siddle was still hitting good speeds and finding bounce and carry late in the day and appears fitter than ever. Australia have used 22 players in their eight Tests this year; Siddle is the only man not to have missed one.

Still, even he can be prone to overwork - he sat out of the Perth Test against South Africa last summer after sending down 63.5 overs in Adelaide. There was a three-day break between Perth and Adelaide; there is a three-day break between Old Trafford and Chester-le-Street. But that becomes irrelevant if Australia fail to win in Manchester.

Siddle was arguably Australia's best bowler on the third day at Old Trafford, although he didn't take a wicket. He altered his angles on the crease, moved the ball in the air and off the seam almost imperceptibly and was unlucky not to add to his two strikes from the second afternoon. Nathan Lyon deserved some sort of reward as well, for despite being attacked by Pietersen and Bell, he found drift, loop, turn and bounce.

In fact, the Australians did some fine things throughout the day, from Brad Haddin's athletic, diving take to get rid of Alastair Cook to Starc's late spell of reverse swing. They had given themselves a chance; a small one, perhaps, but a chance all the same.

For now, the series remains alive, the Ashes in play. But the next two days will determine if the rest of this tour becomes one long Weekend at Bernie's.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here