England eager to seize chance as Australia face fight for their lives

ENGLAND 444 & 280-6 dec

AUSTRALIA 302 & 24-0
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The Independent Online

Strauss is yet to confirm whether he spent the night sleeping under the covers, but his diligence was rewarded yesterday when he scored his first hundred against Australia. Strauss's sixth Test century, along with a classy 65 from Ian Bell, allowed England to set Australia the unlikely target of 423, giving Michael Vaughan's side a wonderful chance of winning the third Test and moving 2-1 up in the series.

By the close, Australia had reached 24 for 0 in 10 tentative overs, and they will need to keep out a further 98 today if they are to save the match. After dominating the first four days, Vaughan would have been reluctant to give Australia any chance of leaving Manchester with a victory. His stance was understandable, but one cannot help but feel the declaration erred on the side of caution.

Yes, Vaughan will be able to set attacking fields throughout the day, and yes, Australia have only batted for more than 85 overs on one occasion in the series. But Vaughan could have been bolder. No side in the history of Test cricket has successfully chased a total of this size; there have only been three occasions when a team has scored more than 370 to win a Test.

Today's events will ultimately show the wisdom of Vaughan's decision, but England will need to take every chance if they are to get the result their cricket here deserves - a victory.

Strauss scored a hundred on his Test debut in 2004, but it is hard to believe any innings will have given him greater pleasure than yesterday's. Batsmen can score Test runs against other teams in the world, but it is only when they post centuries against Australia that they gain real respect, and after this display, Strauss has every right to consider himself among the best in the world.

Warne had tormented Strauss in the opening two Test matches of the series, dismissing him twice at Edgbaston. He also stated how much he enjoyed bowling at the England opener, and it was the prospect of facing Warne which sent him scurrying to the nets.

Strauss should have been dismissed on one, when he edged a Glenn McGrath delivery between first and second slip, but this was the only chance he gave. He was also hit on the head by Brett Lee, a blow which cut his left ear. But Strauss is a strong and determined little so-and-so, and it will take a lot more than a few words from Warne, or a Lee induced headache, to prevent him scoring Test runs.

Despite his extra practice, he still looked more comfortable against the faster bowlers, but he did hit Warne for a couple of boundaries and one huge six. The blow took him to 95, and in the next over he reached three figures by pulling McGrath for four. Warne, ever the sportsman, acknowledged Strauss's feat with a few complimentary words and a shake of the hand.

Bell and Strauss added 127 for the third wicket as England looked to build on their first innings lead of 142. Marcus Trescothick had given England's second innings a perky start but both he and Vaughan fell before England had reached 100.

The pair were watchful to begin with, but they grew in stature as they became accustomed to the conditions. The under-pressure Aussies wasted time and Bell should have been stumped on two occasion by Adam Gilchrist. But he made the most of his reprieve and smashed McGrath back over his head for six as he posted his second half-century of the Test.

Strauss was eventually caught at deep square leg, and Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff failed to provide the pyrotechnics that the capacity crowd expected. But Geraint Jones ensured Australia walked off on a low note when he hacked McGrath for two huge sixes in his final over, although the great fast bowler did exit with five wickets for the 28th time in his Test career.

It took England 75 minutes to claim the final three Australian wickets on an overcast morning. Vaughan would have wanted to wrap things up in the opening half-hour, yet he would also have been fearful of the Australian tail capitalising on Geraint Jones' mistakes on Saturday and batting until lunch. Jones missed two simple chances to dismiss Warne in the 14 overs of play that were possible on a rain-affected third day. Warne was on 55 when he came down the pitch and missed a heave at Ashley Giles, and on 68 when he edged an Andrew Flintoff delivery through to the keeper.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, attempted to excuse Jones' poor glovework by saying that the sun was in his eyes for the catch off Flintoff but, in wicketkeeping terms, these were two simple chances. How great an effect they have on the outcome of the match, or the Ashes for that matter, will be seen today and over the coming weeks.

If England bowl Australia out quickly and move 2-1 up in the series, they will be forgotten. But should the Aussies be eight wickets down at the end of the match, Jones' errors would rightly be considered as one of the principal reasons why England failed to win.

The selectors' decision to place greater emphasis on the run-scoring ability of their wicketkeeper than glovework is understandable, but it is dangerous, and it would be horrible for Jones if these blunders are looked back on as the reason why England failed to win the Ashes.

Not even the most one-eyed of Englishmen would have begrudged Warne his first Test hundred, but for the second time in his career he fell in the nineties. Warne closed his eyes and rocked his head back when he saw his pull shot caught by Giles at deep square leg. He did not want to go but a standing ovation helped him on his way.

The ball that Jones produced to dismiss Lee was of far higher quality, and it helped him towards career-best Test figures of 6 for 53. Jones' development as a bowler, and ability to utilise reverse swing, offers England great encouragement and he could be Vaughan's trump card today.