However, the home side are huge favourites to win the Second npower Test and the odds, which have been swinging this way and that like the door to a restaurant kitchen, can be expected to settle at last. Victory would represent a stunning comeback by England following their heavy defeat at Lord's. Apart from anything else - and there is much else - it would demonstrate that all their talk about being a team with self-belief and belief in each other is not just talk.
One of the elses is the magisterial form in this match of Andrew Flintoff, who yesterday had his greatest day on a cricket field. So far, it should be added. He scored a calm yet bludgeoning 73 in a crisis of immense proportions after England had fallen to 75 for 6, and followed this with three wickets, a catch and a row with Michael Clarke which Flintoff appeared to win hands down. Oh, and he had a damaged left shoulder. For all anybody knows, these teams may well end up at The Oval in September with their arms round each other, but for the moment there is not a drop of love lost between them on the field.
England need two wickets today, Australia, at 175 for 8, require 107 runs. England always took wickets when they needed them, not least at the fag end of the extra half-hour which they had claimed with victory in view and had seen Australia dominate. Then in the last over, Stephen Harmison - wicketless in the match until then - produced a wickedly accurate slower ball which the hitherto unshakable Clarke played around. It rattled into his middle stump. Perhaps the recipient had been rattled by Flintoff.
Were Shane Warne somehow to guide Australia home from here, it would be a feat equal to his mesmerising 6 for 46 yesterday, the 30th time he has taken five wickets in a Test innings. It brought his match haul to 10. As it is, Warne could be pipped for the man-of-the-match award by Flintoff.
It was another utterly compelling day in a series which has so far lived up to every aspect of its billing, a considerable effort considering the column inches and airwave minutes that were devoted to it. Seventeen wickets fell, 331 runs were scored, seven sixes were hit.
The home side began it more pleased with their position, 124 runs ahead with nine wickets left. But, succumbing to Brett Lee's electrifying pace and Warne's lethal cocktail of accuracy and spin, they found their reasons for satisfaction swiftly diminished.
They were 31 for 4 and then 75 for 6. With Warne weaving a spell, those scorelines are perfect examples of being up against it, but despite damaging his left shoulder Flintoff's riposte was impeccable. He was selective at first, always vigilant, and eventually smote with considerable power to garner another four sixes to add to the five he hit in the first innings - a record in an Ashes match. He needed only 86 balls.
This was stirring, defiant stuff, and although he became Warne's sixth victim essaying a stroke which, had it been executed successfully, would have put the ball into Row 53, he had hoisted England back in front.
On the eve of this series, Flintoff, in unusually reflective mood, mused on what this summer's contest meant. "Irrespective of what I've done in the game so far," he said, "come September I'll be judged on how I've done this summer, and so will the team and everybody in it." The evidence of this match suggests that verdict will be heavily weighted in his favour.
The secret to England's drive to victory was that they took wickets at almost the precise moments they needed them. If the trains ever ran like this, the railways would be hailed as a model of industry.
It was Flintoff who made the first breakthroughs after Australia started as assertively as might have been expected. On a hat-trick after wrapping up the first innings, he waited until his second ball to bowl Justin Langer via an elbow. There was an element of good fortune about that, but you make your own luck, and he bowled a series of searching deliveries to Ricky Ponting in the rest of the over. There were two loud lbw shouts, one extremely valid, before he persuaded the tourists' captain to edge behind.
Matthew Hayden was well caught by Marcus Trescothick at slip, Matthew Hoggard took a wicket when Damien Martyn clipped him to midwicket. That was four down, and then Ashley Giles, El Gileo, the King of Spain himself, was in on the act. First he persuaded Simon Katich to nick one to slip and then, perhaps the wicket of all wickets, Adam Gilchrist clipped to mid-on, where Flintoff naturally pouched the catch. It did not turn much, but it turned just enough.
England did not bat well in the first part of the day. This generation of batsmen, with some notable exceptions, looks as much under Warne's spell as the two which preceded it. It is as though they come to the crease crooning the old torch song "Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, I'm yours".
It was Lee who made the early incisions, neither Trescothick nor Michael Vaughan moving their feet decisively enough. Both Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen might have been a shade unlucky to be adjudged caught behind, but it was left to Flintoff to marshall what passed for the rest of England's resources.
Geraint Jones, desperately in need of a score, Ashley Giles and Stephen Harmison came and went. At 131 for 9, they were staring down the barrel. Flintoff and Simon Jones put on a barnstorming and who knows, Ashes-turning, 51.
It was now that Flintoff came into his own. He bludgeoned Michael Kasprowicz, 20 coming from one over, and he biffed Lee.
At one point Australia had all nine outfielders lining the boundary, and the wonder was that wicketkeeper Gilchrist did not join them there. All day, Ponting was aware that he dare not let England get too far ahead. Forget all that about Australia being constantly attack-minded. Ponting played the percentages as well as any defensive-minded captain down the ages.
Australia will need something as special as they have ever managed to win today. The Third Test begins at Old Trafford on Thursday. It cannot come soon enough.Reuse content