Waugh's path for Warne

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Like a good western, the Third Cornhill Test is moving inexorably towards a showdown along a dusty main street. The trigger finger belongs to Shane Warne, the sweaty palms to the England batsmen and if the increasingly dry Old Trafford pitch marks out the duelling ground, the real game will be played out in the minds of the protagonists.

To turn a handsome deficit into an unexpected triumph, England will have to defy history as well as the wiles of Warne, who took just four balls yesterday morning to confirm what Mike Gatting had suspected four years ago. England's highest total to win an Ashes Test batting last was 332 for 7 in Melbourne 70 years ago. By the close, Australia were 335 runs ahead with four wickets standing and Waugh heading steadily for his second century of the match.

In bamboozling Andy Caddick, Warne became the most prolific leg-spinner in Test history, taking his 249th Test wicket in his 55th Test (at an average of just over 24) to beat the long-standing record set by Richie Benaud. He took eight fewer Tests to reach the target too.

England made Australia fight every inch of the way throughout a day for once untroubled by rain but marred fleetingly by the controversial wicket of Greg Blewett, who was jeered back to the pavilion after edging a catch to slip and standing his ground. It was of little comfort to the Australian that some justice was on his side. When Matt Elliott followed soon after, the victim, like Mark Taylor, of Dean Headley's late movement and some sharp slip-catching, England had repaired some of the damage caused by their first- innings jitters. Australia were 112 ahead, too many for comfort, but better than might have been anticipated when the last two England batsmen had fallen in a mere four overs for just one extra run in the morning.

The resistance, though, took a familiar, chunky form. For the second time in the match, nothing much ruffled Steve Waugh other than a bruised hand. He alone has found the right balance between caution and aggression. Working the ball off his legs one moment, shuffling purposefully across his stumps the next, relishing every second of the struggle against the variability of bounce and the England attack. If Australia level the series, his grit as much as Warne's wit will be responsible.

Together with his younger brother, who completed a crisp 50 with a huge six over square-leg off Caddick, and later the irrepressible Ian Healy, he guided Australia to a match-winning position. His first innings, he said, had been one of the best of his life. Yesterday's was not far behind in terms of technique and courage, though the inability of Robert Croft to exploit a turning pitch and the strange malaise of Gough severely limited Mike Atherton's attacking options.

England had woken up to the news that 400 for 2 would have been nearer par in the eyes of their coach, David Lloyd. Admittedly, England's middle order had all too easily reverted to their well-known impersonation of hypnotised rabbits, but this was another pearl from the "we should have murdered 'em" school of mouth-shooting.

Plan A from the Lancashire think-tank was soon resembling a losing betting slip, torn to shreds by Warne's sixth wicket of the innings and a Glenn McGrath yorker too straight and quick for Headley. Australia were batting again within 25 minutes of the start, nursing a healthy lead on a pitch crisping by the minute under the combination of sunshine and a gentle breeze.

An explosive start was essential. And it came, partly through the bowling of Headley, who confirmed the good impression from the first innings with another controlled and hostile opening spell, partly through the dismissal of Blewett, caught at the second attempt by Nasser Hussain. Uncertain that the ball had carried to a slip standing deeper than was wise on such a slow pitch, Blewett stayed his ground. Umpires Venkat and Sharp conferred before confirming the validity of the catch. Blewett departed reluctantly, looking back over his shoulder at the replay on the video screen which was as inconclusive as subsequent slow-motion replays on the BBC.

Two stills from the Sky cameras also proved little, one suggesting that Hussain had flicked the ball up with the tips of his fingers before completing the catch, another that the ball had bounced before being scooped up. The third umpire does not have the power of attorney on such matters, though perhaps he should have, but it would have made little difference. The Australians had a right to be aggrieved on the grounds that there had to be a doubt and they should have had the benefit of it. Healy, who sportingly disowned a similar catch at Lord's, would have had a chirrup about the injustice.

Whatever the outcome here, the ease of Headley's graduation from the England A team to Test cricket has been one positive feature of an otherwise patchy display. Blessed with a whippy, economical action, six of his first seven Test victims were left-handers, evidence of his natural movement in to the right-hander and of the veracity of Atherton's mid-winter criticism.

The England captain had suggested that the lack of an effective away- swinger would hinder Headley's progress. Headley replied with a hatful of Australian wickets on the A tour. The daggers have thankfully been buried in the right backs at Old Trafford. Headley looks set to stay, a luxury not likely to be offered one or two of the batsmen unless some semblance of order is restored over the next two days.

Third Test scoreboard

Australia won toss

AUSTRALIA - First Innings 235 (S R Waugh 108; D W Headley 4-72).

ENGLAND - First innings

(Overnight: 161 for 8)

M A Ealham not out 24

(135 min, 97 balls, 3 fours)

A R Caddick c M Waugh b Warne 15

(74 min, 57 balls; caught at silly point off back of bat)

D W Headley b McGrath 0

(12 min, 10 balls; played forward to swinging yorker)

Extras (b4 lb3 nb2 9

Total (337 min, 84.4 overs) 162

Fall: 1-8 (Atherton) 2-74 (Stewart) 3-94 (Butcher) 4-101 (Thorpe) 5-110 (Hussain) 6-111 (Crawley) 7-122 (Croft) 8-123 (Gough) 9-161 (Caddick) 10-162 (Headley).

Bowling: McGrath 23.4-9-40-3 (8-3-15-1, 3-1-6-0, 3-0-7-0, 8-4-11-1, 1.4- 1-1-1); Reiffel 9-3-14-0 (nb2) (6-2-10-0, 3-1-4-0); Warne 30-14-48-6 (3- 1-10-0, 27-13-38-6); Gillespie 14-3-39-0 (10-1-27-0, 4-2-12-0); Bevan 8-3-14-1 (3-0-12-1, 5-3-2-0).

Progress: Third day: Innings closed 11.15am.

Butcher's 50: 177 min, 137 balls, 5 fours.

AUSTRALIA - Second Innings

M T G Elliott c Butcher b Headley 11

(58 min, 40 balls; edged good seaming ball to second slip)

*M A Taylor c Butcher b Headley 1

(5 min, 3 balls; edged straight ball with unexpected bounce to second slip)

G S Blewett c Hussain b Croft 19

(41 min, 35 balls, 1 four; pushed forward to drifting ball, edged to slip)

M E Waugh b Ealham 55

(121 min, 81 balls, 7 fours, 1 six; played forward down wrong line)

S R Waugh not out 82

(305 min, 211 balls, 7 fours)

M G Bevan c Atherton b Headley 0

(22 min, 16 balls; fended off short ball to second gully)

I A Healy c Butcher b Croft 47

(103 mins, 78 balls, 6 fours; pulled to midwicket)

S K Warne not out 33

(66 min, 56 balls, 2 fours, 1 six)

Extras (b1 lb7 nb6) 14

Total (for 6, 364 mins, 85 overs) 262

Fall: 1-5 (Taylor) 2-33 (Blewett) 3-39 (Elliott) 4-131 (M Waugh) 5-132 (Bevan) 6-210 (Healy).

To bat: P R Reiffel, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

Bowling (to date): Gough 16-2-50-0 (nb2) (4-0-18-0, 3-1-13-0, 5-0-13- 0, 4-1-6-0); Headley 21-3-64-3 (nb3) (8-1-21-2, 2-0-7-0, 6-2-10-1, 2-0- 7-0, 3-0-19-0); Croft 22-9-57-2 (4-0-16-1, 6-2-18-0, 3-2-7-0, 6-2-16-1, 3-3-0-0); Ealham 13-3-41-1 (2-0-8-0, 6-3-15-1, 3-0-9-0, 2-0-9-0); Caddick 13-0-42-0 (nb4) (8-0-27-0, 5-0-15-0).

Progress: 50: 66 min, 15 overs. Lunch: 78-3 (M Waugh 20, S Waugh 23) 22 overs. 100: 130 min, 30.5 overs. 150: 212 min, 48.3 overs. Tea: 154- 5 (S Waugh 56, Healy 7) 50 overs. 200: 286 min, 65.4 overs. 250: 347 min, 80.3 overs.

M Waugh's 50: 106 min, 71 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. S Waugh's 50: 150 min, 110 balls, 5 fours.

Umpires: G Sharp and S Venkataraghavan.

TV Replay Umpire: J H Hampshire. Match Referee: R S Madugalle.

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