Two run outs for England in six balls, including that of skipper Ricky Ponting, put the hosts on the verge of regaining the Ashes on Sunday as Australia slipped to 265-5 at tea on the fourth day of the deciding fifth test at The Oval.
Australia, seeking an unlikely world record run chase of 546, still require a further 281 runs for victory or need to survive another four sessions for the draw that would see the Ashes retained, while England need five more wickets.
Mike Hussey, without a test century since last October and who was averaging 22 in the series before this innings, was 77 not out at the interval while Brad Haddin was on 10.
England needs to win to regain the Ashes after Australia leveled the series at 1-1 with an innings victory in the fourth test.
Australia's prospects of holding out for a draw seem unlikely with the pitch deteriorating further after already having encouraged prodigious spin from day one.
The tourists rallied either side of lunch when Ponting and Hussey came together after the loss of their openers, but the match took another significant twist in the afternoon session.
Ponting, who received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd after having been booed to the crease in previous tests, was typically positive despite his team's dire predicament.
But he was run out for 66 after Hussey called him for a quick single and mid-on fielder Andrew Flintoff picked the ball up cleanly and unleashed a powerful direct throw at the stumps that left Ponting a meter short of his ground.
Ponting was disconsolate as England celebrated wildly at the key breakthrough. It might yet be Ponting's last Ashes test in England. He would be 38 in 2013 on the next tour.
The England team was jumping with joy again next over when vice-captain and Australia's top run-scorer Michael Clarke departed the same way as his skipper.
He clipped offspinner Graeme Swann towards square leg and set off for a run not expecting the ball to hit the ankle of short leg fielder Alastair Cook and dribble back towards him.
England captain Andrew Strauss reacted quickly and threw at the stumps, before the third umpire gave him out with Clarke's bat only on the line.
Australia had gone from 217-2 and looking relatively comfortable despite a crumbling pitch to 220-4.
That became 236-5 shortly after when Marcus North was stumped by Matt Prior off Swann. He attempted a sweep shot only for the ball to bounce up to Prior, who grabbed it and dislodged the bails before North could place his back foot behind the line.
Hussey was dropped on 55 by Paul Collingwood at slip off Swann.
Earlier, Simon Katich offered no stroke to Swann, expecting more sharp turn but was out lbw by a straight delivery. He made 43 in 68 balls. Shane Watson departed three balls later for 40, trapped lbw by Stuart Broad.