England lost Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott before lunch to plunge into deeper trouble on day three of the third Ashes test against Australia on Saturday, leaving the team rocking on 119-4 and still 209 runs off the follow-on mark.
Much now hinges on the partnership of Kevin Pietersen (33) and Ian Bell (4) to pull England up toward Australia’s mammoth first-innings score of 527-7 declared, but the tourists were in full control of a match they need to win to stay alive in the series.
Trott departed for 5 when he edged Ryan Harris to Michael Clarke at second slip and Cook’s surrender for 62 was also tame, clipping Mitchell Starc down the leg side for wicketkeeper Brad Haddin to take a stunning, one-handed catch.
England is 2-0 ahead in the five-test series and currently holds the Ashes, so a draw will do at Old Trafford. Even that’s looking a tall order now, however.
Cook and Trott have put on some stoic stands in recent years but they couldn’t conjure up another here after resuming on 52-2, with runs as hard to come by as they were in a tricky two-hour spell late on Friday when Joe Root and nightwatchman Tim Bresnan fell to Peter Siddle.
Trott never got going and by the time he tentatively prodded at a delivery from Harris, he had added just three runs in 22 balls.
It left England in trouble at 64-3 and Pietersen hardly calmed England fans’ nerves by starting out sketchily, fishing at wide ones outside off stump and finding a thick inside edge off the accurate Harris.
The hosts were crawling along stodgily but their brashest batsman soon settled into his groove and consecutive pull shots to the boundary off Starc drew roars of approval. A flashing drive through point from Pietersen brought up the 100 as the sun peaked out from behind the clouds.
Cook was also looking well set, passing 50 after 138 balls, but will be disappointed at the manner of his dismissal from a loose ball by Starc to end a 46-run stand with Pietersen.
It could prove to be a major turning point in a defining day of the series. If England reaches the follow-on mark of 328, a draw is a likely result and a third straight Ashes series would be wrapped up.