| Andrew Flintoff celebrates the dismissal of Shane Warne on the fourth day of the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval on Sunday. (Reuters)
London: Australia’s Ashes hopes were hanging in the balance after Andrew Flintoff produced a thundering performance in murky conditions to turn the fifth and final Test on its head on Sunday.
The world champions, needing to win at The Oval to retain the Ashes, looked set for an imposing first-innings lead but lost their last seven wickets for 44 runs in 15 overs during a stop-start fourth day to crash to 367 all out.
That gave the home side an improbable six-run advantage which they extended to 40 for the loss of Andrew Strauss, dismissed by Shane Warne, before bad light cut short the day. Only 43.1 overs were possible in all.
Warne, with 35 wickets in the series, seems sure to play a key role in front of a capacity crowd of 23,000 on a final day which could produce any one of three results.
Allrounder Flintoff, who had called on his teammates the previous evening to put every ounce of their energy into the final two days, took five for 78, only his second five-wicket haul in Tests.
Matthew Hoggard wrapped the Australian innings up with a burst of four wickets for four runs in 19 balls. He took four for 97 in all.
The light was as critical a factor, however, and Australia knew they had a Catch-22 decision to take before a ball had been bowled.
Poor visibility and rain had wiped out the final session on Friday, and half of Saturday was also lost.
The light was no better on Sunday but Australia, on top after dismissing England for 373 in their first innings, could not afford to lose any more time.
Out marched opener Matthew Hayden, having completed the 21st century of his career on Saturday after a wretched tour, and Damien Martyn, with the overnight score on 277 for two.
England, 2-1 up in the series and needing only a draw to claim the Ashes back for the first time in almost two decades, made the perfect start. Flintoff broke through with his seventh ball of the day. Martyn failed to get into position and spliced an attempted pull to Paul Collingwood at mid-wicket to make it 281 for three.
Moments later, Flintoff missed a second-slip chance as Hoggard cut the new ball away from Michael Clarke.
The sky soon darkened but Australia’s batsmen refused the light.
Clarke was seeing the ball well enough to bring up the 300 with a fine back-foot force off Flintoff through the covers but even England’s fielders were squinting in the murk.
Hayden pulled one boundary and no fielder moved, then Clarke slashed a drive off Hoggard in the air towards Ian Bell at deep point. The fielder stood and stared and the ball bounced a yard in front of him.
Hayden finally fell with Australia still 50 runs behind when Flintoff, bowling at a furious pace, angled a ball across the left-hander and seamed it back in to trap him lbw.
It was 323 for four. Hayden, averaging in the low 20s for the series before The Oval, hit 18 fours during his seven-hour innings spanning 303 balls.
Katich quickly fell lbw as Flintoff cut another ball back into the left-hander and Adam Gilchrist departed in similar fashion to Hoggard with the final ball of the morning.
The drama resumed after the break, Hoggard usurping Flintoff. Clarke, on 24, snicked behind where Geraint Jones fumbled the chance one-handed but Clarke added only one more before he went lbw.
Back barged Flintoff as Warne top-edged a hoik to Michael Vaughan who took the chance at the second attempt. Hoggard then induced a snick from Glenn McGrath to second slip and Brett Lee, swinging, was well caught by Ashley Giles at deep mid-wicket to end the innings.
England, in contrast, had no intention of turning down the light with so much at stake. Strauss was caught off bat and pad with two on the board before Vaughan and Trescothick took the first offer from the umpires to return to the pavilion.
They re-appeared for half an hour more, Vaughan clattering two square-cut boundaries in a row off Glenn McGrath.