By Ian Ransom
PERTH (Reuters) – Australia moved within six wickets of reclaiming the Ashes at the close of day four of the third Ashes test on Sunday, with England still 127 runs short of making the hosts bat again.
The tourists were 132 for four when rain brought stumps an hour early at the WACA, with Dawid Malan (28 not out) and Jonny Bairstow (14) tasked with an improbable rescue mission.
Australia declared at 662 for nine after lunch, their highest ever Ashes total at home, with captain Steve Smith finally dismissed for 239 from 399 balls.
Trailing 2-0, England must cobble a draw to keep the five-test series alive to Melbourne and their hopes may rest on the weather, with more showers forecast on day five.
It otherwise looked bleak for the tourists, with cracks opening up on a pitch showing increasing variable bounce.
One large fissure at the southern end of the wicket opened up to swallow England number three James Vince for 55, a Mitchell Starc ball jagging viciously back to rip out his off-stump.
Vince had at least shown determined application, a quality sorely missed in his top order colleagues.
Alastair Cook’s miserable series continued as he threw away his wicket for 14, having managed only seven in the first innings of his 150th test.
Joe Root, his successor as captain, was equally culpable in his own 14, with opener Mark Stoneman out for three, as England staggered to 60 for three.
England’s ‘Barmy Army’ danced in the terraces as rain brought tea five minutes early and eventually abandoned play.
Vince and first innings centurion Malan dug in for 40 runs before the pitch claimed the number three.
Bairstow and Malan added another 32 in a watchful stand to keep their wickets before the rain fell.
Australia’s pacemen stuck to their task but the match is likely to be remembered for their captain’s batting masterclass which yielded a second double-century against the same foes.
He was finally dismissed leg before by paceman James Anderson (4-116) in the morning.
All-rounder Mitchell Marsh was also trapped lbw by Anderson without adding to his overnight 181.
Australia lost three wickets for 12 runs in the mini-collapse but wicketkeeper Tim Paine (49 not out) and Pat Cummins (41) steadied the home side with a 93-run stand.
Facing a 259-run deficit, England’s chase began disastrously with Stoneman caught behind for three in the second over, seemingly hypnotised into a lead-footed push away from the body in the space of five metronomic balls by seamer Josh Hazlewood.
Six overs later, Cook was sent packing by the same bowler, the former captain’s dreadful run of form continuing.
Having pulled a short ball to the fence, Cook spooned a leading edge low and straight back to the paceman who took a brilliant reflex catch to dismiss him.
With England desperate for a captain’s knock, Root joined Vince in the middle and the pair added 31 runs to prompt a bowling change.
Lyon was introduced and had Root caught at slip with his first delivery, the skipper playing a loose drive away from the body and Smith snaffling the chance when it pinged off Tim Paine’s gloves.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford and Sudipto Ganguly)