In their attempts to win the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years, England have used high-tech bowling machines, strength and conditioning programmes and even sent key players to Brisbane early to grow accustomed to the weather before the First Test. Yet if they hang on to the urn, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower might reflect that Kevin Pietersen’s part-time off-spin proved just as important as any of those sophisticated plans.
Pietersen’s buccaneering double-century put England in a position to win the Second Test, but it was his contribution with the ball that has made their prospects of completing victory so much brighter. In the final over of the day, Pietersen found the extra bounce that induced Michael Clarke to steer a bat-pad catch to Alastair Cook at forward short-leg and leave Australia 238 for four, still 137 runs short of making England bat again.
Two factors threaten to work against England: the South Australian weather and an injury to Stuart Broad. Tomorrow’s forecast is for 28mm of rain to fall on Adelaide - the average amount for the whole of December, and Australia’s optimism about saving the game will grow further if Broad is unable to bowl.
Broad needed treatment on a stomach muscle strain in the afternoon session, and, although he resumed fielding duties, he did not bowl after completing his second spell of the day and he will need a fitness test in the morning. If Broad cannot take the ball tomorrow, England captain Andrew Strauss will have only three senior bowlers - Jimmy Anderson, Steve Finn and key man Graeme Swann - to turn to.
But make no mistake: Pietersen’s intervention has swung a fascinating match back in England’s favour. Clarke and Mike Hussey are the Aussies’ best players of spin and had put on 104 before Clarke fell. With only Marcus North and Brad Haddin to come before the tail, England sense a 1-0 lead in the series.
Even though rain was forecast both for today and tomorrow, Strauss chose to bat on for 40 minutes in the morning as England sought to score quick runs before a declaration.
Left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty looks out of his depth at this level but he did pick up the wicket of Pietersen. The England batsman had just swept Doherty to the boundary but when he tried to repeat the shot next ball, he miscued it and was caught at slip by Simon Katich for a spellbinding 227, his highest Test score.
Matt Prior joined Ian Bell at the crease and, after the wicketkeeper had successfully reviewed when he was given out lbw to Peter Siddle, they savaged the dejected Australian attack, adding 52 in only 5.4 overs. When Strauss declared, England were 620 for five - only the second time they have passed 600 in Australia - and led by 375.
In the first innings, Australia were reduced to two for three, but there was to be no repeat today as Shane Watson and Katich, choosing to bat without a runner even though a heel injury was forcing him to limp, batted solidly and sensibly, suffering few problems as they guided their team to 78 without loss at lunch.
With the pitch showing signs of turn and uneven bounce during England’s breezy cameo in the morning, it was no surprise to see Swann come into the attack from the Cathedral End after only nine overs.
Swann bowled poorly during the First Test in Brisbane but he has rediscovered his rhythm here, and settled quickly into a testing, miserly spell, bowling into the footmarks created by Aussie paceman Doug Bollinger yesterday.
Although Swann had no success before lunch, he made the breakthrough in his third over after the interval. Barely able to run, Katich had made a brave 43 before he was tempted forward by Swann and Prior clung on to the faint edge to leave Australia 84 for one.
Ricky Ponting was dismissed first ball on Friday and although he avoided the king pair in his 150th Test, Swann outwitted him, too. The Australian captain was undone by a ball that spun less than he had anticipated, took the outside edge and was held smartly by Paul Collingwood at slip.
Clarke has been in dreadful form in recent months and was lucky not to be out first ball today when a bat-pad chance fell just wide of Bell at silly point. Yet Clarke’s plan seemed to be to attack his way into nick and, despite one or two skittish moments, the strategy worked.
At the other end, Watson was shrinking into his shell after an assertive start to his innings, despite completing his second fifty of the match. With Broad having left the field for treatment, Finn was given his chance from the River End, and the 21-year-old did not waste it.
Broad had bowled too erratically in his second spell, but Finn found a consistent line and length, and it did the trick when Watson pushed at one that left him off the pitch and Strauss took the catch at first slip.
With storm clouds gathering at the northern end of the ground, the players hurried to the pavilion and were off for an hour as the rain fell. Yet when they returned, the Australians continued to defy England, enjoying some luck as they did so.
Clarke was given out caught at slip to Swann for 67, but reviewed umpire Tony Hill’s decision and was correctly reprieved as the ball hit pad not bat. Hussey was also fortunate, almost edging Collingwood to slip and watching aghast as a delivery from Swann hit him on the glove and rolled a whisker past off stump.
Three overs were left in the day when Strauss replaced a tiring Swann, who had bowled 34 overs off the reel for 72 runs, with Pietersen. Incredibly, Pietersen accounted for Clarke, who had started to walk off the ground when he realised umpire Tony Hill had not raised his finger.
When Pietersen called for a referral, Clarke knew the game was up. Mike Hussey admitted his team-mate was “distraught” in the changing room afterwards, and, unless the rain can save them, the vice-captain might not be the only Australian feeling that way tomorrow evening.
Tom Collomosse is the cricket correspondent for the Evening StandardReuse content