Moeen Ali made a major breakthrough on the first afternoon as England battled to keep their Ashes prospects alive at Emirates Old Trafford.
After sending Australia to bat in increasingly placid conditions, Ben Stokes watched the tourists hit 187 for four at tea on the first day in Manchester.
With rain forecast to be a factor over the weekend, that keeps the home side in touch as they look to force the victory they need to take the series to a decider at the Kia Oval next week, but the margin of error it is small.
Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes took charge of Australia’s opening matches in the morning, the first moving to 599 career wickets, but Australia’s middle order threatened to drag play after lunch.
Mark Wood successfully removed Steve Smith to check that progress, but a 63 position between Marnus Labuschagne (51st) and Travis Head (47th) was starting to become a major headache.
Then, 10 minutes before the interval, Moeen found enough spin to move one past the inside edge of Labuschagne and earn an lbw decision via DRS.
Labuschagne had just celebrated his first half-century of the series and was starting to show flashes of the form that, until a few weeks ago, saw him top the ICC world batting rankings.
Moeen’s suggestion of an early spin also had the effect of casting question marks over Australia’s team selection, as he dropped Todd Murphy and went on without a specialist spinner for the first time in 120 Tests.
The day began with Pat Cummins incorrectly calling the draw for the fourth time in a row, a losing streak that left him jokingly asking to inspect the coin.
Eager to push the game forward due to his team’s 2-1 deficit, Stokes was happy to gamble by sending the opposition off, despite the morning cloud cover already beginning to give way to sun and pitch. it looked tantalizingly flat.
Broad saw a first loose ball struck for four by his old rival David Warner, but was soon celebrating England’s first success when a full delivery from the wicket pinned Usman Khawaja deep.
No one has scored more runs or batted for longer than Khawaja in this Ashes and England were delighted to see their backs for just three.
James Anderson, back and bowling from the eponymous end after being rested at Headingley, was tidy from the start but was still wicketless heading into the evening session and looked far from his best.
The arrival of Mark Wood set the pace as he once again topped 90mph at a gallop, but his first four overs cost 21, plus four leg byes, as Australia met their challenge.
It took Woakes’s more subtle hints for England’s second Warner (32) to fall behind in the advance just as he was beginning to gain confidence.
Smith was next and almost gave England a chance with an opening shot that was completely off the mark.
He stepped inside the line of his first Woakes ball, engaging Wood directly on the thin leg. If he had been parked on the rope, it would have been a regulation catch, but he was several yards inside and saw the ball clear its desperate plunge en route to a one-rebound four.
Smith and Labuschagne scored more freely as Australia moved to 107 for two at the lunch break, Moeen’s first two-for-two burst costing 17, but England slowed down well in the next session.
Australia scored just 80 between lunch and tea, losing their mid-order engine room by a couple of lbws.
Wood’s airspeed was the deciding factor in breaking through Smith’s defences, slamming the bat with a ball that dug into the front pad at 92 mph, while Moeen found the perfect combination of accuracy and grip to end a battle blow out of itself. Labuschagne. Both decisions were rejected on the pitch, but Stokes chose his challenges well for both appeals to be upheld.
Rocked on the grid by a goalkeeper from Wood with just two to his name, Head played with his usual attacking verve and helped himself to seven bounds when he stepped in to lead Australia’s charge.