Australia’s hopes of winning the first Ashes Test look to rest with Steve Smith and Nathan Lyon after an absorbing day three against England at Edgbaston.
The hosts were eventually bowled out for 374 and had Australia in trouble at 2-27 before Smith, just as he did in the first innings, helped steady the ship.
Smith was on 46 not out at the close of play on Sunday morning (Australian time) as Australia finished on 3-124 with a lead of 34 runs.
With the pitch offering more and more assistance to spinners, Nathan Lyon also looms as a key man for Tim Paine’s side if they are to win the series opener.
All three of Lyon’s wickets came on day three and Australia will hope a lead of 200 runs or more gives the off-spinner enough time to weave his magic in the run chase.
Australia’s focus, for now at least, will be on adding to its lead, with James Pattinson summing up the mood after play.
“We came in today and being in the position we are now, we would have taken, I think,” he told Sky Sports.
“We could have let the game slip, we went out there, took 6-100 and lead by a few. [We will] try to bat long and bat all day.”
Asked what is defendable in the final innings, Pattinson responded: “Anything over 150, I think, especially going into that last day on this wicket.”
Top order failure
Australia will want more of a lead, in truth, after a day that started brightly but involved frustration with the ball and more top-order failure.
Resuming at 4-267, England only added 15 to its overnight score when Ben Stokes (50) chased a wide ball and was caught behind off Pat Cummins (3-84).
Lyon, who finished with figures of 3-112, was unlucky on day two and deserved at least one wicket.
He didn’t need to wait long on Saturday, though. Rory Burns’ defiant innings ending when he edged the tweaker to Paine for 133.
It was a brilliant catch and just five balls later, Lyon bowled Moeen Ali, the England all-rounder leaving a straight one and losing his off stump.
Lyon has now dismissed Moeen in eight of his last 10 Ashes innings, and when Jonny Bairstow (8) was caught at first slip off the economical Peter Siddle (2-52), England were 8-300, with a lead of just 16.
Chris Woakes (37 not out) and Stuart Broad (29) batted stubbornly, though, adding 65 runs in more than 24 overs as the home fans came to life.
Singing to Warner
They serenaded David Warner with a range of songs while he fielded on the boundary, including ‘He’s got sandpaper in his hands’ and ‘We saw you cry on the telly’, but the Australian played up to the crowd, smiling back, showing off his empty pockets and even singing along at the ditty about his post-ball tampering saga tears.
Broad has been uncomfortable against the short ball for a number of years and it was baffling why Australia took so long to target him with a barrage.
When it did, Cummins broke the partnership, spearing a ball into Broad’s ribs which he helped down to Pattinson at fine leg.
Jimmy Anderson, who reportedly bowled at lunch in the nets but did not when England fielded, then came and went for three, when he skied a Lyon delivery to Cummins.
With the amber liquid starting to make its impact on many of the crowd, the volume was ramped up as Warner strode to the crease.
And it was even louder when the opener failed again, caught behind for seven off Broad (1-26) despite trying to leave the ball.
Bancroft (8) failed for a second successive innings, too, caught at short leg off Moeen (1-47), and Australia could have been 3-28, only for Jos Buttler to spill a tough chance at second slip with Usman Khawaja on 11.
Khawaja made the most of his life, hitting the next two balls he faced for four, and he continued to score freely as Australia built some momentum.
Without Anderson to call on, Joe Root used himself as England’s fourth bowling option, before calling on the services of Ben Stokes (1-18).
It was the right decision, if a little belated, as Stokes removed Khawaja for 40 with his second delivery, a ball that nipped in off the seam, took the No.3’s inside edge and was caught behind.
That brought Smith and Travis Head (21 not out) together but the runs continued to come at a good rate, with the only scare coming when a Stokes bouncer crashed into Smith’s helmet.
But the first innings centurion was fine, dusting himself off to finish not out.
And when play resumes on day four, he will, once again, carry the hopes of a nation.