England face battle to save opening Test

England enter the final day of the opening Ashes Test battling to prevent defeat against an unfamiliar Australia side displaying all the ruthless traits of their celebrated predecessors.

Having patiently set up a situation where they could press for victory, Australia seized the opportunity to accelerate relentlessly towards it on another rain-affected fourth day in Cardiff.

Despite losing fierce competitors like Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer in recent years and picking largely unheralded replacements, Australia's display was reminiscent of that golden era.

Resuming 44 runs ahead on an already imposing 479 for five, centuries from Marcus North and Brad Haddin guided Australia to 674 for six before they declared 239 runs ahead to record their highest Ashes total since being dismissed for 701 at The Oval in 1934 and their fourth-highest ever against England.

Just as they used to do so regularly with McGrath in their line-up, Australia then claimed two early wickets to leave England struggling on 20 for two, still trailing by 219 runs when rain washed out any further play at tea.

It was the first time Australia had ever had four different centurions in an Ashes innings, the only time it had been done against England by any opposition and served to emphasise how impressively they have responded to the loss of their superstars.

Left-hander North has typified the ease of that transition, seizing his chance at the top level having been temporary overseas player for four different counties in the last five years to claim his second century in just three Test appearances.

Wicketkeeper Haddin had arguably an even bigger task ahead of him when he replaced all-time great Gilchrist, but was the driving force of their 200-run partnership and hit 71 of the 97 runs added by Australia in the 15 overs between lunch and their eventual declaration.

They had resumed their partnership unexpectedly on time with the forecast showers failing to appear and allowing Australia to build slowly towards their daunting total with both players showing disciplined approaches to the early stages.

Both players were helped in their progress by England captain Andrew Strauss choosing to use his seamers rather than his two spinners on a wearing pitch and delayed their entry into the attack until the 14th over of the morning.

Once they were combined England immediately began to cause more problems with off-spinner Graeme Swann beating Haddin on several occasions before the decision was made to take the third new ball, prompting Australia to release the shackles and begin their pursuit of a declaration target.

Almost as soon as the new ball was taken Australia began to play more aggressively with 10 runs being taken off the first over from all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, while North scrambled a two off James Anderson to reach his century shortly before lunch.

Haddin took 13 off another Anderson over immediately after the interval and then brought the 600 up in style with a slog sweep off left-arm spinner Monty Panesar which cleared the mid-wicket boundary for six.

Such was the ferocity of Haddin's approach he raced from 50 to his hundred in just 48 balls and by the time he was caught at long-on off Paul Collingwood, he had hit 11 fours and three sixes in his brilliant 121.

North was the more methodical of the pair and remained disciplined throughout his unbeaten 125, refusing to become tempted by England's consistent tactic of bowling outside his off-stump and demonstrating a tenacity akin to former captain Steve Waugh.

Facing a tricky seven overs before tea, England knew they would have to match that determination after the energy-sapping efforts of spending 12 hours and 24 minutes in the field watching Australia pile up the runs.

Just as McGrath did all too often over the last decade, Australia exploited that situation with left-arm seamer Mitchell Johnson winning an lbw appeal after swinging the ball into Alastair Cook's front pad.

Ravi Bopara followed just seven balls later when he also tried to play across his front pad and umpire Billy Doctrove upheld an appeal for lbw from swing bowler Ben Hilfenhaus even though television replays suggested the ball would have bounced over the stumps.

Those two dismissals have left England, who have not won the first Ashes Test in any series since 1997, praying for more weather interruptions as they attempt to bat out the final day and prevent Australia taking an early lead in the npower series.

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