Andrew Flintoff launched England's fightback with his second five-wicket haul in Tests
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A stunning England fightback, with Andrew Flintoff leading from the front, and bad light were the major players on the fourth day at The Oval. With another 56 overs lost England are edging near to regaining the Ashes, but just as no day this series has seemed complete without a contribution from Flintoff the same can be said of Shane Warne. Australia were given one final sliver of hope to cling to as Warne removed Andrew Strauss in his first over
Ricky Ponting had been forced to turn to his spinners early, but even with them operating England were offered the light on two occasions. Unsurprisingly Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan nearly jogged back to the pavilion on both times. The Australians did not make a great deal of fuss but were not enamoured by the decision. On the resumption after the first stoppage the players tried to make their point by all wearing sunglasses as they walked to the pitch.
But that was a rare moment of humour in another seriously competitive day, the majority of which brought a thrilling bowling performance from England. Flintoff operated for the remaining duration of the Australia innings and his total spell, taken from yesterday evening, lasted 18 overs. It was a spell of sustained, hostile pace bowling which none of the Australia batsmen were comfortable at facing. After Flintoff took his fifth wicket Hoggard ran through the tail as England claimed a completely unexpected six-run lead.
With the weather playing such a significant part in this match Australia were relieved when play started on time following torrential overnight thunderstorms. However, their progress suffered an early blow when Flintoff removed Damien Martyn in his second over. Flintoff charged in from the Pavilion End and cramped Martyn for room with a short ball, which looped out to square-leg for Paul Collingwood to hold onto the catch.
Shane Warne again dismissed Andrew Strauss to give Australia hope
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When Vaughan opted for the new ball the umpires consulted about the light but, this time, the Australian batsmen opted to stay on rather than lose more precious time. That belated show of aggression was then followed by an attempt to push along the scoring rate as Matthew Hayden and Michael Clarke started to play their shots.
Clarke received a life when he edged a booming drive off Hoggard to Flintoff at second slip, who proved he was human after all by dropping the chance, which he attempted rather casually. However, Flintoff put that miss to the back of his mind and continued to charge in. Although Hayden appeared more comfortable against England's other bowlers, his discomfort against Flintoff was clear as he refused to push forward.
This ultimately cost him his wicket when Flintoff seamed a ball back into him which would have crashed into middle stump. Hayden knew his fate and was almost walking before the umpire raised his finger, as was Simon Katich two overs later. Katich received an almost carbon-copy ball, after a series of deliveries slanting across him, and this time replays showed leg-stump would not have been standing.
Clarke, after his early life, was hanging on grimly, using all his efforts to try and see the ball amid the gloom and repeatedly played-and-missed at Hoggard's probing outswing. Adam Gilchrist came out and played the only way he knows - by taking on the bowling, but his series has been characterised by rapid twenties. Flintoff's line outside off stump has certainly troubled him, but so has Hoggard's inswing. Gilchrist played across the line to what became the last ball before lunch - in a manner very similar to his second innings at Trent Bridge - to become the third lbw victim of the session.
Billy Bowden explains to Warne why the light was offered to England
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The collapse continued after lunch when Hoggard also trapped Clarke in front - ensuring that another missed catch by Geraint Jones did not prove costly for England. Warne then top-edged a pull to Vaughan at mid-on and despite a juggle the catch was pouched as Flintoff gained worthy reward for another stunning display of aggression. Hoggard then took his cue to mop up the tail by dismissing Glenn McGrath for the first time this series and Brett Lee holed out at deep mid-wicket as he attempted to slog some late runs.
Australia had lost eight wickets for 90 runs, but the celebrations from the crowd did not last long before Warne brought a dose of reality back to the day. With his fourth ball he forced Strauss to get an inside-edge to short-leg, dismissing the left-hander for the sixth time in the series.
Vaughan played two flowing square cuts off McGrath, during a brief period when the light was good enough for the seamers, and only Warne caused many alarms. He spun a couple of deliveries past Vaughan's edge while also finding considerable help from the footmarks. Warne is determined to finish his last Test in England on the winning side and although time is now against him he has the knack of pulling off the miraculous. England are now in the position of needing two sessions of batting to seal the Ashes and half those overs will be bowled by Warne.
With this in mind, the cheer for the bad light was almost bigger than for any of Flintoff's wickets on a day when the quirks of cricket were demonstrated to their fullest. A crowd who had paid considerable money to watch play were deliriously happy when they were watching nothing. Most of them want England to win the Ashes and they aren't too bothered how they do it.
Damien Martyn c Collingwood b Flintoff 10 (281 for 3)
Cramped for room, lobbed short ball to square-leg
Matthew Hayden lbw b Flintoff 138 (323 for 4)
Ball seamed back, hitting top of middle
Simon Katich lbw b Flintoff 1 (329 for 5)
Similar to Hayden's, clipping top of leg stump
Adam Gilchrist lbw b Hoggard 23 (356 for 6)
Full length, swinging back, would have hit leg stump
Michael Clarke lbw b Hoggard 25 (359 for 7)
Struck on the back leg, hitting middle
Shane Warne c Vaughan b Flintoff 0 (363 for 8)
Top edge pull to mid-on
Glenn McGrath c Strauss b Hoggard 0 (363 for 9)
Edge to second clip
Brett Lee c Giles b Hoggard 6 (367 all out)
Slogged out to deep mid-wicket
Andrew Strauss c Katich b Warne 1 (2 for 1)
Inside edge to short leg
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo