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England will need to bat for the entirety of the final day to kill Australia’s pursuit of an Ashes whitewash in Sydney, after Usman Khawaja’s second century of the match completed his triumphant return to Test cricket.
Having marked his first appearance in two-and-a-half years with an elegant 137 in the first innings, Khawaja repeated the feat with a dashing 101 not out at his old home ground and gave his side every chance of going 4-0 ahead.
By the time Australia declared on 265 for six, England were staring at a distant target of 388, exactly 100 more than the record chase on this ground and 91 more than their best total of the series.
Not many statistics from the current campaign offer good tidings for Joe Root’s side, but the fact that Khawaja has already scored more than any other Englishman barring the captain himself is a painful reminder of their flaws.
The opening pairing has been the biggest problem of all and they looked ripe for the picking in an awkward period before stumps. But Haseeb Hameed and Zak Crawley both fearfully short of runs, played out 11 overs to reach 30 without loss. Remarkably, that represented England’s best first-wicket stand of the trip.
Australia should get another 98 overs on Sunday, with England carrying three injured men in their top seven. Ben Stokes has had scans on a worrying side complaint, while Jos Buttler (left index finger) and Jonny Bairstow (right thumb) have both had X-rays.
In the absence of the latter pair, Ollie Pope was drafted in as substitute wicketkeeper and acquitted himself impressively with four catches, but everyone will be needed to play their part with the bat.
England began the day with centurion Bairstow still at the crease and three wickets up their sleeve as they looked to chip away at an overnight deficit of 158.
They were only able to take another 36 off, with Scott Boland removing Bairstow for 113 and adding Stuart Broad to continue his remarkable introduction to the Test arena.
Returning to the field 122 in arrears and with Pope deputising behind the stumps, England knew they needed a huge effort with ball in hand. For a while, at least, it looked like they might produce one.
Root tossed the ball to Wood while it was still fresh, just five overs in, and he responded by immediately snagging David Warner’s outside edge. Pope took it safely and the job was under way.
Pope’s second catch was more impressive, standing up to Jack Leach’s spin, staying low and snapping up a sharp edge from Marcus Harris. By the time they added the prize scalps of Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith Australia were creaking at 86 for four.
The world’s top-ranked batter Labuschagne lost his head-to-head with Wood for the third innings in a row, swiping a seaming delivery to Pope. Smith, meanwhile, had a rare aberration when he lost his middle stump cutting Leach.
There was, for a moment or two, a hint that Australia could be toppled but Khawaja went on to lead a superb stand of 179 with Cameron Green.
He instantly found his rhythm, pulling elegantly and stroking into gaps. When England opted for spin, he milked it or monstered it depending on his whim.
There were a couple of emphatic slog sweeps for six off Leach, each achieved with an assertive stride and a fulsome swing.
By the time he reached 50 with a cover drive off Broad, the idea that he would double up had already taken hold. Green was much less sure of himself but the lack of scoreboard pressure and Khawaja’s calm assurance helped him settle.
There were only a couple of slight doubts along the way to Khawaja’s hundred, a nick off Root that went in and out of Pope’s glove and a optimistic lbw referral on 98.
If England thought the latter delay would unsettle him, their decision to hand part-timer Dawid Malan the next over had the opposite effect and Khawaja duly whipped a long-hop for two to kick off a long ovation.
A declaration looked certain but Pat Cummins gave Green the chance to sprint for his own ton. He got as far as 74 before slogging Leach straight in the air. The spinner made it two in two when Pope’s smart reactions condemned Alex Carey to a golden duck, but Cummins refused to allow the hat-trick opportunity – waving Khawaja in from the balcony.
Australia have made a habit of new-ball wickets but found Crawley (22no) in breezy form, while Hameed hung in for eight.