England has set Australia an unlikely target of 399 runs to win the fifth Test at The Oval, with an early three wickets making the tourist’s job even harder.
Joe Denly top scored with 94 in England’s 329, with only 16 runs added to the overnight score of 8-313.
Australia’s run chase got off to a bad start when Marcus Harris was bowled by Stuart Broad for nine, while David Warner fell soon after for 11 caught at third slip off Broad.
It marked the end of a forgettable Ashes series for Warner, although he did make it to double figures.
And when Marnus Labuschagne (14) was stumped by Jonny Bairstow off Jack Leach, it left Australia at 3-56 with its hopes resting again with Steve Smith.
On Sunday morning (AEST) a prickly Australian skipper Tim Paine launched a fierce defence of his teammates’ conduct after Australia lost control of the fifth Ashes Test on day three at The Oval.
Paine’s team, needing to avoid defeat to record Australia’s first Ashes series triumph in England since 2001, have looked off from the moment the captain opted to bowl when coach Justin Langer thought batting first made more sense.
England is now in the box seat to record a consolatory victory that would draw the series, with Australia already facing a chase more intimidating than that which Ben Stokes completed in Leeds.
The highest successful chase at The Oval is England’s 9-263 against Australia in 1902, while the overall record in England is Australia’s 3-404 at Headingley in 1948.
Australia created a collapse of 6-91 in Saturday’s final session, the highlight of which was a spectacular diving slips catch from Steve Smith, but was left to rue a couple of game-changing reprieves during Stokes’ and Joe Denly’s 127-run stand.
The chirping of Paine and Matthew Wade also attracted plenty of interest as tempers frayed between the rivals, including a tense exchange as players filed off for lunch in which Stokes allegedly called David Warner a “f—ing pr–k”.
Wade was rebuked by umpire Marais Erasmus in the morning session, during which England captain Joe Root told the Tasmanian he “can’t have it all” his way.
“There was nothing in it at all,” Paine said, denying that Erasmus cautioned Wade about his chatter.
Stump microphones later picked up one of the Australians uttering “yeah, Bristol!” while Stokes was at the crease, a reference to the infamous Bristol nightclub incident in 2017.
Denly, who rode his luck to top score with a career-best knock of 94, was at the non-striker’s end and denied hearing the word “Bristol”.
“You tell me? I think we’ve been fantastic,” Paine said, when asked about his team’s behaviour.
“It’s competitive Test cricket and people are going to talk to each other. I don’t know why it’s such an issue. It’s fine.
“They are grown men having a conversation, no-one is swearing, no-one is abusing anyone.
“I don’t understand why so much is made of something so little, particularly given the standard of cricket being played.”
Australia looked physically exhausted and were uncharacteristically sloppy, their best fielder Smith clutched four catches but grassed a chance offered by Stokes on seven.
Stokes went on to score 67, sapping the tourists’ morale.
Denly, who was dropped on one by Marcus Harris during Friday’s final over, would have been out on 54 if Paine reviewed an lbw shout.
“There’s always going to be a bit of niggle but nothing over the line … Stokesy deals with that pretty well,” Denly said.
Fatigue after an intense six weeks in England – or four months for those stars backing up after the World Cup – is presumably to blame for Australia’s malaise but Paine declared “it’s not an excuse for anyone”.