England home in on glory
The stage is set for England to bring down the curtain on a triumphant Ashes tour with victory over Australia on the last day in Sydney.
The day began on a sombre note with the announcement of Paul Collingwood’s retirement from Test cricket, but it concluded with travelling fans jubilant at the thought of an impending 3-1 series win.
To that end, England require just three more wickets. The prospect of batting again is non-existent, given that their advantage is still worth 151.
Trailing by a whopping 364 on first innings, Australia rarely looked anything but doomed today.
In reaching 213 for seven by the close, they at least avoided the ignominy of losing inside four days, but a third innings defeat of the series is sure to be wrapped up tomorrow morning. The champagne is well and truly on ice for England.
The day panned out as well as they could have hoped, the only disappointment being their failure to set the seal on a fittingly emphatic triumph after taking the extra half-hour this evening.
Quick runs - largely from the bat of Matt Prior, who became the third centurion of the innings - were followed by another nigh on immaculate bowling performance which peaked with two wickets in two balls for Chris Tremlett late on. Graeme Swann, England's supposed match-winner, is wicketless thus far.
Prior raced from his overnight 54 to a stunning 109-ball hundred with an ease rarely seen in the international arena, helping carry England from 488 for seven to 644 all out, their highest total on Australian soil.
He claimed the honour of recording England’s fastest Ashes century since Ian Botham in 1981, and the speed at which he scored served to highlight the shortcomings of a woeful Australia attack.
By contrast, James Anderson, Tim Bresnan and Tremlett showed themselves to be expert exponents of reverse-swing as they shared six wickets, while the run-out of Shane Watson embarrassed an Australia side that has been outclassed on their own turf like at no time in recent memory.
Watson’s approach to a deficit of such daunting proportions seemed to be centred around getting after Anderson.
However, the crispness of his pulling and driving were forgotten the instant Phil Hughes, having worked Swann through a vacant midwicket, rejected Watson’s call for a second run.
Kevin Pietersen, running round from mid-on, did well with the slide and throw, but there was ample time for Watson to turn back. In not doing so, he ended up at the same end as his partner and Australia were 46 for one.
Hughes’ travails continued to the tune of 13 off 58 balls, although for once his technique was not to blame for his dismissal. Instead, Bresnan can take credit for finding sufficient bounce to find the outside edge, while Prior took a smart tumbling catch in front of first slip.
It took the return of Anderson to end a mildly frustrating third-wicket stand between Usman Khawaja and Michael Clarke, both of whom edged behind.
If the left-handed Khawaja was undone by the natural angle, feeling for a ball slanted across him immediately after pulling Anderson for four, movement away in the air and off the pitch did for Clarke, who made 41, as he pushed forward. It was swing bowling at its best.
Mike Hussey failed to control a cut off Bresnan - Pietersen held a sharp chance above his head at gully - before Tremlett was brought back to devasting effect.
He had Brad Haddin, aborting a hook, caught by Prior via a top edge, and Mitchell Johnson, beaten for pace and late swing, was cleaned up first ball.
The contrast with Australia’s bowling could not have been starker. Ragged yesterday, any improvement was difficult to detect this morning.
Prior, whose prowess through the off side is hardly a secret, was fed a diet of half-volleys that allowed him to unfurl his favoured cover drive with frightening regularity.
When he creamed Michael Beer through point, all bar Collingwood of England’s top seven had made centuries in this series.
Bresnan was content to play second fiddle to Prior as they compiled a stand of 102, a record for England’s eighth wicket on this ground and a third successive three-figure alliance this innings.
Mitchell Johnson’s first over with the third new ball went for 11 - nothing compared to the 20 he leaked later on - but he at least had Bresnan’s wicket, his fourth of the innings at an overall cost of 168, to show for his efforts.
A thick edge and fine diving catch at second slip from Clarke saw Bresnan depart for 35, and Prior perished monents later for 118, caught behind after doing well to even reach a long hop from Ben Hilfenhaus.
Swann needed little encouragement to flay an unbeaten 36 off 26 balls and take England beyond the 636 they made on this ground in 1928, and Australian celebrations were muted, to say the least, when Hilfenhaus located Tremlett’s edge just after lunch.
They were acutely aware that the hard work was only just beginning. Somewhat predictably, it proved beyond them.