England denied in tense finish
England were denied victory in the third npower Test by the narrowest of margins as the last pair of Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath saw out the last 24 balls to rescue a draw for Australia in another thrilling finish at Old Trafford.
The home side were left with four overs to claim the final wicket after Stephen Harmison ended a mammoth knock by Ricky Ponting, who made 156 to guide his team to the brink of safety.
Harmison and Andrew Flintoff were the bowlers as England gave everything in their bid to complete a dramatic win but the Australian pair hung on and the series remains level at 1-1.
Lee hit the last ball off Harmison for four to help make up for his disappointment of the second Test when he was left unbeaten on 43 as England clinched a two-run win.
It was another dramatic climax following the events at Edgbaston and provided great entertainment for a capacity crowd, with more than 10,000 fans turned away as Ashes fever continues to sweep the country.
Flintoff had looked set to be the hero on his home ground after a four-wicket haul but instead it was Ponting’s gritty innings which proved decisive.
The Australia captain led by example to set up the dramatic climax but England hopes were lifted when his 76-run partnership with Shane Warne was ended by a stunning catch from Geraint Jones.
Warne looked to have survived when he edged Harmison to Andrew Strauss but he failed to take the catch at second slip.
The ball struck his thigh and looped towards Jones, who was alert enough to pounce for a one-handed diving catch which gave Andrew Flintoff his fourth wicket.
Ponting then tried to keep the strike and leave Lee at the non-striker’s end but lost his own wicket when he gloved a leg-side catch to Jones.
At that point England sensed a second successive win but it was not to be.
Australia began the day on 24 without loss, chasing a record 423 for an unlikely win, and England made a dream start when Matthew Hoggard struck with his first ball of the morning as Justin Langer edged a regulation catch through to Jones.
Ponting was next in and struck the first boundary of the morning when he flicked the first ball of Hoggard's next over through the onside for four.
Hoggard continued to cause problems though and Ponting gloved one past Ian Bell at short leg before surviving a confident lbw appeal.
Spinner Ashley Giles was brought into the attack early as he replaced Harmison at the Brian Statham End and his second ball saw Geraint Jones whip off the bails. Billy Bowden consulted the third umpire but Ponting survived.
A huge cheer from the crowd greeted the introduction of Lancashire all-rounder Flintoff at the Stretford End but Ponting went straight on the attack and pulled his third ball for six.
Matthew Hayden almost perished when he edged Flintoff just wide of Andrew Strauss at second slip but England could make no further inroads in the first hour of play as the tourists reached 80 for one.
Flintoff focused on Hayden’s off stump during his spell but after another 16 runs had been added, he suddenly aimed one at leg stump and Hayden was bowled round his legs for 36 in the 20th over of the day.
Ponting (41 not out) and Damien Martyn (17 not out) then saw Australia through to 121 for two at lunch but only more eight runs were added in the afternoon before the latter departed.
He had added two runs to his lunchtime score when umpire Steve Bucknor adjudged him leg before wicket to Harmison to reduce the Aussies to 129 for three.
Much now depended on Ponting and he completed his half-century after being joined at the crease by Simon Katich.
Ponting continued to play his shots and scored at a good rate considering his side’s precarious position but he lost another partner when Flintoff angled one across Katich and the left-hander edged to Giles, who took a smart catch at a wide third slip.
Australia were wobbling again on 165 four and that became 182 for five as Flintoff again accounted for Adam Gilchrist with a swinging delivery which the Australian wicket-keeper edged to Ian Bell at gully after making just four.
That saw Michael Clarke head to the wicket, batting without a runner after recovering from his back problem, and at tea he was unbeaten on 20 with Ponting 91 not out.
Ponting reached three figures after the interval with a four off Harmison to complete the first century of the series by an Australian and the partnership with Clarke gave Australia hope of an unlikely victory.
They put on 81 but Simon Jones sent back Clarke for 39 when he offered no shot to an inswinger and lost his off stump.
He was swiftly followed by Jason Gillespie when he was struck on the pads by Hoggard without scoring and Bucknor again raised his finger.
Australia were now 264 for seven and they added another seven runs before England opted to take the new ball with 27.4 overs left.
As in the first innings, Warne proved to be a stubborn opponent and gave Ponting vital support for the eighth wicket. The England bowlers began to tire and toiled in vain for another breakthrough, with the best chance falling to Kevin Pietersen who could not hold on attempting a diving catch off Warne.
The partnership was worth 76 when Jones produced his stunning catch to bring the crowd back to life but in the end their was no victory to cheer.