Graeme Swann put England on target for victory on the fourth day in Adelaide, where Australia lost three wickets before tea and face a monumental task to save the Test.
The Australians still trail by 215 runs, and with their top three batsmen all back in the dressing room with four sessions of the match remaining, enormous pressure was building on Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey.
Swann removed Simon Katich early in the second session and then added the big wicket of Ricky Ponting, before Shane Watson’s half-century was ended by Steven Finn. It left Australia at 3 for 160 at tea, with Clarke on 36, looking in much better touch than he has so far in the series, while the in-form Hussey was on 14.
England’s plans were dealt a blow when Stuart Broad strained a stomach muscle and the clouds were also starting to gather near the ground, which would have pleased the Australians. But they will need boundless concentration against Swann, who has been constantly threatening with catching men all around the bat for much of the innings.
He was finding sharp turn at times, as well as his usual drift, but the ball that accounted for Australia’s captain was a straighter delivery that didn’t zip and spin out of the rough as Ponting expected. Ponting (9) played for the spin and his edge was snapped up low to the ground at first slip by Paul Collingwood, ending a fascinating tussle between Ponting and Swann.
It had taken Ponting 13 balls to get off the mark as he found Swann difficult to get away, but a vicious cut for four and a confident swept boundary suggested the contest was evening up, just before the wicket fell. Swann had already ended the 84-run opening partnership when Katich tried to defend and was caught behind off a thin edge for 43.
Katich had hobbled his way through the innings with an Achilles tendon injury that severely hampered his running between wickets, but the Australians were thankful for his hard work given the time they must bat in this innings. However, if his the problem continues to trouble him over the next week, Phillip Hughes might be in line for a call-up in Perth.
The man who threatened to be Australia’s anchor was Watson, who batted confidently with his usual aggression and well-timed drives, but once again he failed to convert a strong start. Watson has passed fifty on 15 occasions in Test cricket but only twice have those half-centuries turned into hundreds, and if ever Australia needed triple figures from him, it was today.
It was the patience of Finn, who peppered away consistently just outside off stump, that did for Watson when he edged to first slip for 57. The inability of Australia’s batsmen to capitalise on their starts was all the more frustrating for them given the monstrous scores racked up by England’s batsmen, led by Kevin Pietersen with 227.
Pietersen added 14 to his overnight score but it was enough to beat his previous Test best of 226, which he made against West Indies at Headingley in 2007. He eventually fell caught by Katich at slip, when he misjudged a slog sweep, and it was a consolation wicket for Xavier Doherty, who finished with 1 for 158 and looked nowhere near as threatening as Swann.
England’s batsmen scored their runs briskly after Andrew Strauss decided against declaring overnight, and in nine overs they pushed the total up by 69 before Strauss called a halt to the innings. Ian Bell had moved on to an unbeaten 68 and Matt Prior was on 27, which guided England to 5 for 620 – their highest Test innings total in 20 years and their fifth-best of all time against Australia.
The visitors would be disappointed if that effort doesn’t turn into a win, although after losing three wickets Australia might need more than a little bit of help from the weather.