England on the brink
Shane Warne spearheaded a brutal lower-order assault before Australia’s bowlers left England staring at defeat in the final Ashes Test in Sydney.
The man made famous by his ability with the ball starred with the bat on the third day at the SCG, propelling Australia into a first-innings lead of 102 thanks to a blistering 71 off only 65 balls.
Though a maiden Test century in his final match was beyond even the great man, he claimed the honour of top-scoring in Australia’s total of 393, helping add 205 to their overnight score at almost five runs an over.
England lost four wickets in overhauling the deficit - they closed on 114 for five, a lead of just 12 - with the demise of Andrew Flintoff in the penultimate over all but signalling the end of their hopes of avoiding a 5-0 series defeat.
England’s priority remains to set the hosts - chasing only the second whitewash in Ashes history - something resembling a testing target, with the perils of batting last on a pitch displaying occasional vagaries in bounce key to their chances of salvaging some pride from a miserable tour.
The responsibility lies chiefly with Kevin Pietersen, who was unbeaten at the end of a high-octane day which saw Australia’s tail score with abandon before England’s batsmen were shackled by the most disciplined seam bowling one could wish to see.
The patience demonstrated by Pietersen, in particular - his 29 not out spanned 92 balls during an evening session which yielded just 71 runs in 31 overs - contrasted with the belligerence of Warne and his colleagues.
Adam Gilchrist made a rapid 62 and Andrew Symonds 48, while Stuart Clark contributed 35 to an immensely valuable ninth-wicket stand of 68 with Warne which ended England’s hopes of keeping Australia’s lead to a minimum during a riotous opening two sessions.
There were boundaries aplenty as well as a host of missed chances and near misses, all played out amid a sometimes spiteful atmosphere exemplified by Warne’s bitter spat with Paul Collingwood.
James Anderson removed Mike Hussey with the eighth delivery of the morning, the left-hander failing to add to his overnight 37 before he edged one slanted across him, but Symonds and Gilchrist batted with considerable common sense before the former was bowled aiming an unsightly heave at Monty Panesar.
Warne swept his first ball for four and swatted his second over mid-wicket for six to leave England in little doubt as to his intentions.
Gilchrist progressed to a 59-ball half-century which included six fours, and struck the boundary - a deft late cut - that took Australia past England’s total as he and Warne began to enjoy themselves.
The 50 partnership soon followed, off just 37 deliveries, but Anderson struck again to remove Gilchrist, caught by a diving Chris Read as he chased a wide half-volley in the first over with the new ball.
Undeterred by the loss of Brett Lee, who edged Flintoff behind immediately after lunch, and spurred on by his verbal joust with Collingwood, Warne continued to play his natural attacking game, mixing expansive straight drives with slashing cuts and trademark leg-side heaves.
Clark joined in on the act, doing much more than frustrating an England attack that began to show signs of tiredness as runs flowed freely.
He eventually fell to a miscued pull off Sajid Mahmood, and the arrival of Glenn McGrath, who received a tumultuous reception on his way to the crease in his farewell Test, prompted Warne to charge Panesar and provide Read with an easy stumping, his sixth dismissal of the innings.
Australia enjoyed early success with the ball as England set about wiping out the arrears, Alastair Cook caught behind pulling Lee to leave the tourists five for one.
Andrew Strauss shook off a sickening blow to the head from a Lee bouncer - a precautionary scan later showed nothing untoward - to make 24, but he was pinned lbw by Clark before frustration forced Ian Bell to chase, and edge, a wide delivery from Lee.
The obdurate Collingwood sliced Clark to Matthew Hayden at gully and England’s woes were compounded when Flintoff was lured out of his crease and stumped by Gilchrist with the close of play moments away.
Fittingly - and unsurprisingly - Warne was the architect.