England on verge of Ashes glory

SOUTH London’s murky weather conditions made another telling contribution towards ending England’s long wait for Ashes success, inching the hosts towards their historic prize in the deciding Oval Test yesterday.

Bad light restricted play to just 43.1 overs of the fourth day of the crucial final Test and lifted the gloom surrounding 18 years of failure since Mike Gatting’s side last captured the little urn in 1986-87.

Using the dark conditions to claim a surprise six-run first innings lead early on as Australia batted on in a desperate attempt to establish a winning position, England readily accepted the offer to go off for bad light in similar conditions by mid-afternoon.

The decision by umpires Rudi Koertzen and Billy Bowden to take the teams off stretched Australia’s patience to the limit.

ShaneWarne stayed out in the middle for several minutes contesting the umpires’ decision after England had progressed to 34 for one.

His protests were in vain and with the light failing to improve, no further play was possible leaving Australia hoping for a vast improvement in the weather and a sudden England collapse today.

Australia had resumed on 277 for two trailing by 96 overnight hoping they could press on to claim a substantial lead and allow Warne to exert his influence on the final day.

That plan was undermined by another stunning display from Flintoff, this time with the ball, to shake Australia’s progress and claim a surprise six-run first innings lead after they lost seven wickets for 44 runs in 90 balls.

Bowling unchanged from the Pavilion End for 14.2 overs either side of lunch, Flintoff’s determination and hostility earned him five wickets for 78 runs.

Setting the tone from the second over of the day, when a lifting delivery surprised Damien Martyn and induced him into mistiming a pull shot straight to midwicket, Flintoff became the talisman for England’s stirring fightback.

Flintoff then ended the long resistance of opener Matthew Hayden, who had battled for nearly seven hours for his 138, when he trapped him leg before with a fast, full-length ball.

Simon Katich fell in identical circumstances in his next over to become Flintoff’s third wicket in 46 balls and Hoggard increased the pressure on Australia by earning an lbw appeal against Adam Gilchrist in the final over before lunch.

Flintoff continued to exert the pressure at the other end and bowled a superb spell to Warne inducing a mistimed pull which captain Michael Vaughan took at the second attempt.

Hoggard cleaned up the tail, finishing the innings by claiming four wickets in 19 balls, to claim the unexpected slender lead.

But with the light as bad as ever, few expected England to be on the pitch for long in their second innings.

Ricky Ponting introduced Warne into the attack from the fourth over of England’s reply and he duly struck with his fourth ball to remove Strauss.

Any hopes Warne may have had of making further inroads into England’s line-up were ended only nine overs later when bad light ended play definitively.

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