Some fine bowling from Pat Cummins and another decisive Steve Smith innings has left Australia needing just eight wickets on the final day of the fourth Test to retain the Ashes in England for the first time since 2001.
The famously fickle Manchester weather finally played ball on Saturday (local time) and Tim Paine’s men took advantage on an eventful day that saw 13 wickets fall and Smith narrowly miss out on yet another century.
In response to Australia’s 8-497 declared, England narrowly avoided the follow on, bowled out for 301 as all 10 wickets were shared by the tourists’ much-vaunted pace trio.
Australia was then powering on at 4-44 in its second innings as David Warner made his first pair in Test history, falling victim to Stuart Broad for the sixth time this series.
As is the theme of this Ashes, Smith then rescued Australia, hitting an important 82 that helped Australia to 6-186 declared.
And there was enough time for two late wickets as England, set 383 for victory, lost Rory Burns and Joe Root in successive deliveries in the first over of its chase.
Cummins was the man responsible, his brilliant double-salvo ensuring Paine’s side have all the momentum going into the fifth and final day at Old Trafford.
ROOT GOES! CUMMINS TWO IN TWO! CAN HE GET A HAT-TRICK? ENG 2/0
— Wide World of Sports (@wwos) September 7, 2019
If Australia wins the Test, it will take a 2-1 lead in the Ashes with one match remaining, ensuring that England cannot win the series, which it needs to do to win cricket’s famous urn back.
England resumed at 5-200 and Ben Stokes (26) got an early life when Mitchell Starc spilled a tough return catch.
But Starc soon made amends, bowling Jonny Bairstow for 17 with a tremendous inswinging delivery, and he continued to impress with the ball after struggling for rhythm on day three.
Starc soon added the scalp of Stokes, caught by Smith at second slip, and when Jofra Archer departed for one, England was at 8-256, still needing another 42 runs to avoid the follow on.
Jos Buttler (41) started to play his shots, though, and added 27 with Broad until the paceman was bowled by another Starc cracker.
Starc should have dismissed Jack Leach, too, with England stuck three runs short of the follow-on mark, but Australia had no reviews left and could not challenge an incorrect lbw call.
That meant that the decision on whether to enforce the follow on was taken out of Paine’s hands as England passed the mark but then had Buttler bowled by Cummins.
Broad’s dominance over Warner continued as he trapped the out-of-form opener lbw for a duck, meaning Australia’s best opening partnership through four Tests is a dismal 13 runs.
Warner’s partner fell cheaply, too, Marcus Harris also dismissed by Broad, for six.
Marnus Labuschagne’s run of form came to an end when Archer (3-45) had him lbw and when Archer bowled Travis Head for 12, Australia was in trouble.
A steady partnership was needed and it was no surprise that Smith was the central figure, going past 600 series runs with his trademark efficiency.
Smith and Wade added 105 runs for the fifth wicket but were given a major leg-up when England captain Root declined to use Broad and Archer straight after tea.
The openers bowled nine overs each in their first spell, but had time before tea and then a 20-minute break to rest up before another attempt at swinging the match in England’s favour.
Australia was in a tricky spot at 4-63 at tea but after the break, Root initially opted for Leach (1-58) and Craig Overton (0-22) who both leaked runs, Leach in particular.
The move eased the pressure on Australia and Smith also made the most of another dropped catch, Stokes putting down a very difficult chance when the star batsman was on 48.
Smith and Wade both then fell in the hunt for quick runs but Paine’s 18-ball 23 not out pushed Australia’s lead beyond 380.
And Cummins stormed in to dismiss Burns with just the third ball of England’s run chase when the left-hander spooned a leading edge to Head.
It was about to get better, Cummins bowling a stunning delivery that nipped away off the seam ever so slightly, enough to kiss the top of off-stump and send Root packing for a golden duck.
Jason Roy – dropped down the order to No.4 to shield himself from the new ball – was in inside the first over but he survived the hat-trick delivery and got to stumps at eight.
Joe Denly is the other not out batsman, on 10, but England now faces a difficult task to keep Australia at bay on an intriguing day five.