England 294 for 7 (Pietersen 113, Cook, 62, Bell 60) trail Australia 527 for 7 dec by 233 runs For a little more than two hours, England asserted the measure of control they required to secure this match, and the Ashes themselves. Though Australia's bowlers had toiled manfully and persistently, finding life where their opposite numbers had not, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell stood firm, the former thrusting to a fine hundred, the latter caressing his way towards a third such score of the series.
But right at the moment the tourists may have begun to flag, Ryan Harris found a way through the previously impassable Bell, tilting back his off stump and revitalising Australia. The wickets of Jonny Bairstow and Pietersen himself followed, leaving the Old Trafford Test finely balanced with two days remaining and maintaining Australia's heartening revival as belatedly serious contenders for the urn.
On a day of high quality and considerable intrigue, Harris, Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle and Shane Watson all delivered searching spells. Pietersen and Bell can seldom have played better, their calculated attack on Nathan Lyon a critical passage on a pitch taking turn and bounce throughout. There were imponderables, too. Pietersen on 62 would have been out lbw had Michael Clarke assented to Watson's opinion that his old-ball inswinger was bound for the stumps. When Starc dismissed Pietersen lbw there was Hot Spot evidence of the merest nick.
Starc's contribution should not be underestimated, for his knack of taking wickets countered a tendency to lose his length and line at times. A mediocre delivery accounted for Alastair Cook thanks to a supreme leg-side diving catch by Brad Haddin, but Bairstow and Pietersen fell victim to a sublime spell of reverse movement as the evening drew in.
Recovered from an apparent stomach bug, Harris had opened up for Clarke alongside Siddle. Their early overs were relentlessly probing, offering only the most occasional scoring chances for Cook and Jonathan Trott, neither of whom looked comfortable despite a ball that was no longer new and a pitch possessing few demons.
Trott, who had begun the series in grand touch, was particularly scratchy, becalmed in much the same way Joe Root had been the previous night. Unable to get off strike, or hit the middle of the bat, Trott ultimately succumbed while doing his best not to play a shot at all, edging to Clarke at second slip while trying to leave Harris.
Pietersen's first few deliveries were no more convincing, as he fiddled loosely at balls zinging past him outside off stump as though wanting to offer a nick to the Australia cordon. Harris nearly burst a yorker through Pietersen also, but the entry of Starc and Watson to the bowling attack - while Lyon was oddly given only two overs - allowed a little pressure to be relaxed.
With Pietersen scoring freely and Cook carrying on stoically, England appeared set to reach lunch without further loss. But 12 minutes before the break a Starc delivery angling towards Cook's hip drew a fine leg glance and a rasping catch by Haddin, clasping the chance in the tip of his right glove as he threw himself full length. In the dying moments of the session Bell may have given up the thinnest of edges to Haddin off Starc, but only Australia's wicketkeeper went up for the catch.
That moment did not linger too much in Australian minds, but there was to be another midway through the afternoon. Pietersen and Bell had counter-attacked confidently and fruitfully, their chief achievement the removal of Lyon from the attack despite Australia's offspinner bowling well on a pitch that offered turn and bounce. Twice Pietersen lofted Lyon for six and Bell followed up with one of his own; not once could the bowler be said to have offered up something to hit.
Nonetheless, his withdrawal left Clarke searching for wickets, but when Watson found a hint of swing after replacing Lyon, the moment of success passed without the captain realising it. Pietersen had lurched forward and across to play through midwicket, and though Watson seemed adamant in his appeal Haddin and Clarke suggested the ball was swerving down the leg side.
But Hawk-Eye revealed it to be hitting leg stump squarely enough for Tony Hill's verdict to be overturned, and the sight of Darren Lehmann raising a glum finger from the balcony left Clarke pondering whether his moment had passed. Certainly there were few other glimmers offered by Pietersen and Bell, both well entrenched by the time the interval arrived and already taking some shine off the second new ball.
Safe as both batsmen looked, Australia required something beyond the sturdy stuff dished up in the first two sessions. True to his form so far in the series Harris would provide it. Moving most deliveries fractionally away from Bell, he conjured a nip-backer that beat an accomplished technician for length, pace and deviation, striking the top of off stump and reviving his team.
Bairstow and Pietersen then prospered for a time, but never with the security of the previous stand. Each bowler troubled Bairstow in turn, while Watson singed Pietersen's outside edge with a series of deliveries bending subtly away. Watson's frustration at this sequence was plain, but it did not prevent him from pouching a sharp low chance when Starc's angle eventually tempted Bairstow to flirt at a ball whirring across him.
Starc was by now finding the reverse swing that won him selection ahead of Jackson Bird, and two overs later he ensured Australian hope would be raised for the remainder of the match by pinning Pietersen lbw. The ball straightened down the line and would have crashed into middle stump, though there was the suspicion of an edge so thin that even Pietersen did not pick it up. Stuart Broad and Matt Prior were left to scratch around in the lengthening shadows, the match and the series still tantalisingly open.