It's time to hide behind that sofa again

Another unbearable finish looms as out-of-form batsman finds his touch to threaten Vaughan's dream
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It is entirely apt that the intense drama is likely now to come down to the final hour, perhaps the final ball of the final over. There are no statistics on the subject - even for cricket - but the number of kettles put on out of relief or frustration will probably break the all-comers' record. England need only a draw to regain the Ashes after 16 years, Australia must win. That was the case before the Fifth Test began and by last night they were the only outcomes possible.

The balance is with Australia, who had regained most of the steely-eyed composure which the majority had feared would be sufficient to dismantle England's campaign long before September had begun. But rain and bad light came to England's aid, if not exactly galloping then at a swift canter. It was the only rub of the green that the home side had on the field of play, and not before time Australia might say. All the close calls went the tourists' way yesterday, but a delayed start and three interruptions afterwards meant that they could not overtake England. Only 45.4 overs were possible out of a scheduled 98.

Two full days of cricket still make them favourites and the equation amounts to this. Australia are 96 runs behind with eight first-innings wickets in hand and will need a lead of at least 100. Both their beleaguered opening batsmen, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, made centuries and Hayden is still there. They will have to go at a lick but that will not bother them a jot with so many batsmen left. The thought that they can then throw the ball to Shane Warne and ask him to bowl to his heart's content from the Vauxhall Road End for the last time in a Test in England, either for as long as he wants or as long it takes, will only fuel their self-belief.

England's contentious decision to include an extra batsman at the expense of a fifth specialist bowler may yet help to bail them out. First, they must try to restrict Australia to as slender a lead as possible. Anything above three figures imperils them but if there is more bad weather about today - and the Met Office does not exclude the prospect - then time will come into the equation.

Apart from the 23,000 spectators who will pile into the ground today and tomorrow, the back of the sofa beckons for the rest of the country. After the first, almost euphoric, first hour of this match when England raced away, they were not only touching the urn, they must have been thinking of bouncing it up and down on their knees. But since then, Australia have controlled events.

Whatever Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, said so animatedly to his charges at the first drinks break on Thursday morning, he should bottle it as a vitamin supplement. The change was swift and dramatic. The benefit that England and all of her new-found followers craved - winning the toss - came and went. Much, perhaps too much, was made of its importance, and the collective outpouring of relief and jubilation when the coin went Michael Vaughan's way almost took the roof off the new stand here.

Many soundings were made after the first day and it was natural that the side who had dominated most sessions of the series should speak with conviction. But the truth was that England were a minimum 100 runs short of what they needed and expected. Doubtless, the prospect of what lay in store was partly to blame but when the first four wickets subsided with an alacrity approaching meekness recovery was never going to be easy. It immediately compounded the loss of Simon Jones and when Langer and Hayden not only survived the new ball but went on the prospect of an Australian victory grew accordingly.

The openers have underpinned Australia's batting dominance in the past four years as Mark Taylor and Michael Slater had before them. Their lamentable starts this summer have made it correspondingly difficult for Australia to bat in the domineering fashion they like.

On Friday afternoon, Hayden batted with huge self-denial, Langer took the attack to England. This might have been the way the cookie crumbled but there was no doubt that Hayden, in eschewing his usual belligerent intent, was playing not only for the Ashes but his international career. They took their unbroken overnight partnership of 112 to 185 before Langer was out. He was fortunate to survive a perfectly legitimate lbw appeal to the first ball of the day and while he was never quite in Friday's groove it was still unexpected when he chopped Steve Harmison on to his stumps.

Since it was drizzling and the players followed him off, his annoyance might have been multiplied. It was his 22nd Test century - only four Australians have scored more - and came from 146 balls. He never gives the impression, but he is one of the fastest scorers in world cricket and his studied, immediate assault when Ashley Giles entered the attack on Friday, hitting him straight away for two sixes, bespoke a batsman who is also quick and deliberate of thought.

The break was welcome for England because it allowed their four-man attack a long rest. They might have made more inroads on return. Hayden edged Ashley Giles past Geraint Jones' static gloves when he was 83 and two balls later Ponting was granted the benefit of the doubt when England launched a clamorous appeal for an athletic bat-pad catch at short leg. He might well have hit it, he might not, and although it was the sort of decision on which the Ashes might depend, Billy Bowden called this one right.

The contentious umpiring decisions have been an integral part of this pulsating series but, as is the way, they have begun to level themselves out. There was one more to come when, Ponting having steered Andrew Flintoff to gully where Andrew Strauss took a well-judged catch, Damien Martyn began nervously. He seemed to have glanced Flintoff off the full face to Jones but Rudi Koertzen turned down the appeal. Australia have been miffed - no, they have been plain bloody mad - that they have been on the wrong end of many decisions but another complaint would be one too far.

By the time Hayden reached his 21st Test century, he was in something like form and once more wielding his bat as though he learned the craft from the William Wallace book of broadsword use. Indifferent light slowed them again and they are have gone along at a relatively pedestrian 3.5 an over. The series is showing no sign of going off the boil.

Fifth npower Test scoreboard

England won toss

England - First Innings

M E Trescothick c Hayden b Warne 43

(Fine low catch at slip off thick edge; 78 min, 65 balls, 8 fours)

A J Strauss c Katcih b Warne 129

(Brilliant bat-pad catch at silly mid-off; 350 min, 210 balls, 17 fours)

* M P Vaughan c Clarke b Warne 11

(Chipped attempted back-foot forcing shot to mid-wicket, 25 min, 25 balls, 3 fours)

I R Bell lbw b Warne 0

(Plumb in front pushing forward; 9 min, 7 balls)

K P Pietersen b Warne 14

(Missed attempted whip shot through leg-side; 31 min 25 balls. 2 fours)

A Flintoff c Warne b McGrath 72

(Edged lifting ball of back foot to slip; 161 min, 115 balls, 12 fours, 1 six)

P D Collingwood lbw b Tait 7

(Hit on toe by swinging full-length ball; 26 min, 26 balls, 1 four)

ÝG O Jones b Lee 25

(Beaten by fine ball which clipped top of off stump; 59 min, 41 balls, 5 fours)

A F Giles lbw b Warne 32

(Hit on front pad pushing forwards; 119 min, 70 balls, 1 four)

M J Hoggard c Martyn b McGrath 2

(Chipped slower ball to mid-off; 47 min, 36 balls)

S J Harmison not out 20

(26 min, 20 balls, 4 fours)

Extras (b4, lb6, w1, nb7) 18

Total (470 min, 105.3 overs) 373

Fall: 1-82 (Trescothick), 2-102 (Vaughan), 3-104 (Bell), 4-131 (Pietersen), 5-274 (Flintoff), 6-289 (Collingwood), 7-297 (Strauss), 8-325 (Jones), 9-345 (Hoggard), 10-373 (Giles).

Bowling: McGrath 27-5-72-2, Lee 23-3-94-1 (nb3), Tait 15-1-61-1 (nb4), Warne 37.3-5-122-6, Katich 3-0-14-0.

Strauss 50: 141 min, 79 balls, 8 fours. 100: 253 min, 150 balls, 13 fours.

Flintoff 50: 103 min, 79 balls, 9 fours.

Australia - First Innings

(Overnight 112-0)

J L Langer b Harmison 105

(Bottom edge on to stumps from lifting ball; 235 mins, 146 balls, 11 fours, 2 sixes)

M L Hayden not out 110

(347 min, 250 balls, 15 fours)

* R T Ponting c Strauss b Flintoff 35

(Fended lifting ball to gully; 84 min 56 balls, 3 fours)

D R Martyn not out 9

(27 min 26 balls, 1 four)

Extras (b4, lb6, w2, nb6) 18

Total (for 2, 78.4 overs) 277

Fall: 1-185 (Langer), 2-264 (Ponting).

To bat: M J Clarke, S M Katich, ÝA C Gilchrist, S K Warne, S W Tait, G D McGrath.

Bowling: Harmison 20-2-75-1 (2nb, 2w), Hoggard 14-1-53-0 (1nb), Flintoff 19.4-7-48-1 (3nb), Giles 21-0-74-0, Collingwood 4-0-17-0.

Langer 50: 85 min, 63 balls, 6 fours, 2 sixes. 100: 231 min, 142 balls, 10 fours, 2 sixes.

Hayden 50: 191 mins, 137 balls, 7 fours. 100: 289 mins, 218 balls, 15 fours.

Umpires: R Koertzen (SA) and B F Bowden (NZ).

Match referee: R S Madugalle (SL). TV replay umpire: J W Lloyds.