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Stuart Broad lit the fuse on England’s victory push with two huge wickets as a compelling Ashes opener built towards a thrilling conclusion at Edgbaston.
Broad got England’s ‘fortress’ rocking in the evening session as he had Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith – numbers one and two in the Test batting rankings – caught behind during an electric spell.
With adrenaline coursing through his veins Broad would have loved nothing more than a crack at the man who occupies third place on that list, but Australia opted to shield Travis Head from the late pressure and sent out Scott Boland as nightwatchman.
Australia ended a gripping fourth day on 107 for three chasing 281, with all results on the table heading into what is set up to be a classic finale.
The tourists had made an assured start to the chase, with Usman Khawaja and David Warner putting on 61 for the first wicket before Ollie Robinson got one to clip the latter’s outside edge to get his side up and running.
England had earlier been bowled out for 273, an erratic but entertaining innings punctuated with dashing strokeplay but haunted by a feeling of impermanence.
There was not a single half-century on the card, with Joe Root and Harry Brook both reaching 46 and Ben Stokes contributing 43.
Had any of the three lasted the course, the game might have slipped away from Australia entirely, but Root was stumped for the first time in his 131 Test career as he charged Nathan Lyon and Brook tried too hard to generate a boundary that was not on offer.
Stokes, whose attacking principles run through the DNA of his side, played a notably responsible knock but was stopped in his tracks by his excellent opposite number Pat Cummins.
Resuming on 28 for two, Root set an audacious tone, attempting his trademark reverse ramp off Cummins’ first delivery of the morning and hitting fresh air. Root has all but mastered the stroke but, even by his own standards, attempting it so early – with a crucial Test match on a knife-edge – showed remarkable chutzpah.
Undeterred, he went back to the well twice in the next over, launching Boland over the wicketkeeper’s head for six and then flicking four more beyond the slip cordon. It was a faintly surreal, but utterly exhilarating opening salvo.
Boland’s reputation for giving nothing away had taken a battering in England’s first innings and there was more where that came from as he shipped 31 from his first three overs before being pulled from the attack.
Cummins, by contrast, was working up a head of steam at the Pavilion End and produced a gem of a yorker to see off Ollie Pope (14). He went on to claim four for 63 – an outstanding effort amid the chaos.
The arrival of Brook ensured the tempo did not slow. He took just three balls to register his first four, punching Cameron Green down the ground and spraying 13 off Lyon’s first over. England were going nicely but Root took a gamble too far when he ran down the pitch and allowed Alex Carey to swipe the bails.
It fell to Stokes to calm things down and he reined in his natural aggression as he slowed Australia’s roll with some measured accumulation. Instead, it was Brook who lost his patience as Lyon dried up the scoring options.
Within sight of a first Ashes fifty he swiped at the spinner and was well caught by the diving Labuschagne at midwicket. England headed to lunch at 155 for five and neither side allowed the other to get away in the afternoon with 118 scored and five more wickets tumbling.
Jonny Bairstow was trapped in front by Lyon and Stokes was cut off by the relentless Cummins after almost two hours of studied observance, a tight lbw decision going against the captain.
Moeen Ali added 19, Robinson scrapped hard for 27, while England’s last two wickets squeezed out a vitally important 44.
Faced with a target eerily close to the 282 the Australian class of 2005 missed by just two runs in one of the rivalry’s most famous clashes, the tourists stood tall. Khawaja nicked James Anderson in the opening over, but Bairstow was slow to react following three errors earlier in the match and a tough chance went begging between keeper and slip.
The openers chipped away at the total as the trail began to go cold, but Robinson opened the door when he got one to straighten up off the seam and take Warner’s edge for 36.
England’s spirits were lifted and Broad picked his moment to take centre stage. Having dismissed Labuschagne for a golden duck on day two, Broad produced a similar dismissal as he prodded an edge through to Bairstow.
Broad was unusually calm as he stomped off with a grin on his face, but neither he nor the 25,000 in attendance could not contain their emotions when a skittish Smith followed suit with just six to his name.
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