James Pattinson of Australia bowls Kevin Pietersen
James Pattinson of Australia bowls Kevin Pietersen Independent News and Media

Bell on verge of century at close of play on Ashes Day Three

AT THIS rate, the world supply of seat edges will shortly be under threat. From first ball to last on Day Three of the First Test of the Ashes twisted and turned excruciatingly on its enthralling path to a denouement which may be unbearable.

Only late on the third day did this gripping match appear finally to have turned England's way in a fashion that might have broken Australia's spirit and will certainly determine the manner in which this series will now be conducted. Slowly, unsurely the home side had built on their lead, led improbably by Ian Bell's resilient, magisterial innings of 95no, but the tourists had never quite let them out of sight.

By the time Bell and Stuart Broad had taken their crucial seventh wicket partnership to 81 late in the day, Australia urgently needed a wicket. The deficit was 236 runs, it was reaching the stage where England were again, perhaps for the third or fourth time, on the verge of creating a position that was unbreachable.

And then, Ashton Agar, the 19-year-old Victorian debutant for whom life is at present a bowl of cherries, conjured one out of the rough to Broad. It took the outside edge of the left hander's bat, flew off the glove and thigh of the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and looped to Michael Clarke at slip.

Australia leapt in overjoyed unison. Broad meanwhile gave that look which suggests that butter would not melt in his mouth - easy enough with his boy band face - and got on with his business while the umpire Aleem Dar, the best in the world not long ago, turned down the appeal. For a moment it looked as though Australia would lay siege to him but though visibly angry, they restricted themselves to desperate imploring.

Clarke, their captain, made the motion for a review but to no avail since his side has used both their permitted requests, the second a particularly wasteful referral for an lbw against Jonny Bairstow. Dar saw no need to seek additional guidance and the match continued.

In the next over Haddin failed to pouch a difficult low chance to his right, offered by Bell swatting at Siddle, perhaps also affected by the dispute. It may be too early so suggest that the series was won and lost in this period. England had their own misfortune the previous day when Agar, on his way to 98, was ruled not out stumped on six when his foot seemed patently not to be over the line.

But it is safe to presume that Australia felt hard done by then at a significant moment and that they will not be dashing for the pavilion any time soon should they happen to hit the cover off the ball. Their bitterness did not subside and the fast bowler, James Pattinson, may find himself up before the beak for an over-zealous appeal for lbw against Bell near the close.

In its way, an additional touch of controversy was precisely what befitted this stupendous tie. The pitch was dry and slow. Runs and wickets had to be prised out of it.  Bell, of all people, did much of the important prising, virtuously denying himself throughout a long, hot vigil. There was one vintage cover drive early in the piece but otherwise his chief scoring asset was the delicate late dab and cut.

He left the ball gloriously and used the review system judiciously when he was 34 and adjudged lbw to Shane Watson. At this stage the ball was reverse swinging almost manically and a wicket then might have had Australia all over England.

Replays showed the ball was narrowly missing leg stump and Bell was spared.

The third day of this gripping match, sponsored by Investec, was cut from a different cloth than the two which went before. Then it was the non-stop action and the unfathomable clatter of wickets which made the affair so absorbing, now it was the relative calm that gripped.

It was impossible to relax, on occasion it was difficult to draw breath given the potent mixture tension and the claustrophobic humidity of a high summer's day. England, 261 ahead, with four wickets in hand are now favourites to prevail.

The conditions encouraged reverse swing and allowed spinners to ply their trade with optimism, which is not the norm at Trent Bridge. In the initial stages it seemed that everything for England would hinge on the overnight partnership of Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen.

For an hour they could no little wrong and it was beginning to seem that Pietersen would stamp his mark and authority and proceedings as was his destiny. Cook simply played the percentages. They had been here before doing this, the last time in Mumbai late last year when England won an epic victory.

When the ball began to go Irish, as the Australians put it, there was the suspicion that something had to happen quickly. It did. Pietersen, after striking 12 fours in his 64, played a forcing shot against Pattinson which rattled into his stumps off an inside edge.

Ten runs later, Cook pushed forward with a crooked bat to Agar and was undone by the ball rushing on out of the rough. Clarke took a wonderful catch leaping high to his left. It was a stunning grab in anybody's language, for a man with a chronic back condition it was almost miraculous.

Australia were in the ascendancy then but Bell and Jonny Bairstow repelled them just long enough to ensure England were not overwhelmed. Soon after, Bairstow was caught behind off Agar, Australia decided to take the second new ball.

It was the wrong move. It allowed Matt Prior just enough latitude to play his instinctive attacking game and though he was out pulling to mid-wicket, perhaps being too aggressive for the circumstance, England led by 153. Broad played with good sense and was frequently in consultation with Bell. They survived to the end, courtesy of Dar. The last has not been heard of it. The Ashes remain ablaze.

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