Cook and Bell call the shots
Australia’s slender hopes of earning a share of the series were all but ended by another dominant England batting display in Sydney.
Alastair Cook converted his overnight 61 into a magnificent 189, another hefty contribution in a contest which has been dominated by his blade, while the century that Ian Bell has looked capable of all winter finally arrived in the evening session.
He fell for a scintillating 115 shortly before bad light ended play prematurely, with England 488 for seven and boasting a first-innings lead of 208 and counting.
However, Matt Prior’s continuing presence - he is unbeaten on 54, having made the most of the freedom afforded by England’s position of great strength to score at a shade under a run a ball - means Australia can expect further toil in the field tomorrow.
The SCG may have been a sea of pink as supporters from both sides showed their support for the McGrath Foundation, but England were the team undeniably in the pink by the close.
Even Glenn McGrath, that most celebrated of Pommie bashers, would struggle to see how Australia can stave off defeat against a rampant England, let alone engineer the win they need to draw the series 2-2.
Cook’s status as the leading run-scorer on either side had long since been secured by the time England resumed on 167 for three, yet he showed no sign of his appetite being satisfied.
He pressed on unerringly to three figures and beyond, taking his tally for the series to a phenomenal 766 runs. Only Wally Hammond among Englishmen has scored more.
His 154-run stand for the sixth wicket with Bell left Australia bedraggled and bereft of ideas - not for the first time this winter - before Bell and Prior rubbed their hosts’ noses in the proverbial dirt by adding 107 in 24 overs for the seventh.
Australia may claim, with some justification, that Bell should have been adjudged caught behind for 67 when an edge detected by umpire Aleem Dar could not be confirmed by HotSpot.
But to take the moral high ground would be hypocritical in the extreme given that Phil Hughes earlier claimed a catch off Cook that clearly bounced, in what amounted to little more than cheating.
It was an unsavoury incident on a day that began with England losing nightwatchman James Anderson, bowled playing inside a full delivery from Peter Siddle that hit off stump.
Alas it was not the wicket they craved. That did not arrive until England’s lead stood at 100, by which time Cook had complemented his double hundred in Brisbane and a century in Adelaide.
With 76 to his name, a thick edge off Shane Watson narrowly failed to carry to second slip. Whereas Michael Clarke had the decency not to claim the catch, Hughes showed no such class moments later.
Cook, on 99, turned Michael Beer to short-leg, where Hughes celebrated - reluctantly at first and then with greater gusto - having taken a low chance.
The batsman was sufficiently unsure to stand his ground, and replays confirmed the ball had hit the turf - as Hughes must have known. At best, it was unsavoury; at worst, shameful.
It was doubly disappointing for Beer, who was denied Cook’s wicket when he overstepped yesterday, but a maiden Test scalp arrived when Paul Collingwood, trying to hit his way back in to form, skied to a back-pedalling Ben Hilfenhaus at mid-on.
Cook had moments earlier brought up a 202-ball century - his 16th in Tests - and the sight of him twice driving Beer on one knee through cover reflected his growing command over an attack that ran out of ideas in worryingly quick time from an Australian point of view.
He and Bell batted through the afternoon session, untroubled for the large part on a pitch which showed occasional signs of variable bounce as the day wore on.
Both are in the purplest of patches, Cook clipping the ball off his pads and cutting in typically uncomplicated fashion while Bell drove sweetly through cover and down the ground.
Containment proved beyond all but Watson, who was rewarded for his economy when he had Cook, reaching to drive one slanted across him, smartly taken low to his right by Mike Hussey at gully.
A standing ovation was no less than Cook deserved for an innings spanning 342 deliveries and containing 16 fours.
Watson, his team-mates and Dar all thought they heard an inside edge from Bell shortly after, but Bell reviewed the decision and, on the evidence available to TV umpire Tony Hill (that did not include ‘Snicko’, which suggested otherwise), the batsman was reprieved.
The manner in which Bell and Prior flayed a wilting attack around the SCG, most memorably when the latter drilled Steven Smith contemptuously back over his head for six, will have done nothing to improve Australia’s mood.
The departure of Bell in the penultimate over of the day, edging Mitchell Johnson to a solitary wide slip, took only the slightest hint of gloss off the sort of batting England performance that can now be considered commonplace.