Steve Smith once again held Australia’s Ashes hopes on his shoulders as England’s bowlers fought in vain to dismiss their nemesis on the third evening of the opening Test.
The home side claimed a handy first-innings lead of 90, all out for 374 after Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes backed up Rory Burns’ maiden international hundred with vital tail-end runs.
They then prised out three wickets before Australia had cleared the deficit, Broad, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes dovetailing to see off the top order, leaving the fate of the game revolving around Smith.
He produced a sensational 144 to drag his side back from the brink on day one, his first Test knock since his year-long ban for ball-tampering, and when bad light intervened shortly after 6pm at Edgbaston he had effortlessly reeled off another unbeaten 46.
Australia will resume on 124 for three, 34 in front, knowing their chances might well live and die with their former skipper.
England, meanwhile, are juggling a depleted attack. James Anderson was able to make a brief cameo with the bat but did not join his team-mates in the field, his right calf injury clearly serious enough to keep him out of the fray.
At one stage Jofra Archer appeared as a substitute fielder, his first appearance in the Test environment, and whatever transpires over the next 48 hours it seems increasingly certain the World Cup winning seamer will debut in Anderson’s place in the second Test at Lord’s.
Play began with England positioned well, 17 behind but with six wickets in hand and Burns in place on 125.
Yet it was Australia that wrestled back the initiative, removing Stokes, Burns, Moeen and Jonny Bairstow in a morning session that brought just 61 runs.
Burns never looked like reasserting himself on the bowlers he had ground down over six-and-a-half painstaking hours on day two, scoring only eight in an agonising 70 minutes at the crease.
His epic effort finally over, well held by Tim Paine off Nathan Lyon, he received one more well-earned ovation.
Lyon also landed the latest knockout blow in his ongoing duel with Moeen.
Having dismissed his opponent seven times in nine innings during the last Ashes tour Down Under, he circled his prey for four scoreless balls before Moeen offered no stroke to the fifth, which went on with the arm and clattered off stump.
Broad and Woakes then dug their heels in in a vital stand worth 65, each run a shot in the arm. Neither lost focus for a moment, though it would have been easy to do so as a sense of silliness took over in the afternoon.
“Same old Aussies, always cheating” rang around the ground at the slenderest provocation, while Smith became an increasingly visible on-field general despite his ban from leadership duties and David Warner was sent to field in front of the Hollies Stand bear pit.
He was predictably slaughtered for his role in the sandpaper scandal but was good-humoured enough to show the crowd his palms and turn out his pockets – confirming there was nothing untoward to declare on this occasion.
In the middle of it all, the ninth-wicket pair stood firm and quietly advanced their team’s position.
Broad lasted 67 balls for 29, his longest stay in six years, before Cummins finally bounced him out and Woakes was left stranded on 37 when Lyon teased out Anderson.
The 37-year-old’s injury left Broad to lead the attack, a challenge and with a first-innings five-for in his pocket he was more than happy to do so.
He soon had Warner for the second time in the match and in the process saw him claim his 450 Test wicket. Shaping to leave the ball outside off Warner left the bat wagging, inadvertently nicking to Bairstow.
Cameron Bancroft was toppled in equally tame fashion, lazily fending Moeen to Jos Buttler at short leg to make it 27 for two. Between them the openers had managed 25 in four innings on their return from ball-tampering bans.
Usman Khawaja should have followed in the same over, Buttler grassing a low chance at slip, but went on to chalk off 40 off the English advantage.
He and Smith took Australia within 15 of parity before the introduction of Stokes did the trick, a hint of extra pace drawing the edge from Khawaja.
Once again it was left to Smith to carry the fight. His placement and timing were watertight, ignoring a series of field changes with almost no risk at all.
A run out chance on 33 and a nasty, head-rattling blow to the side of the helmet from Stokes provided the only moments of concern and England will need to crack Smith’s code if they are to remain in control of the match on day four.