Ashes reckoning approaches
Sydney, New South Wales
The closer we get to the finishing line, the faster the heart beats.
Tuesday at the SCG was a nerve-jangler of the sort that only a tight Test can produce - see-sawing this way and that, the crowd baying and bawling, punches aimed and traded but the knockout blow never quite landing.
At stumps England were 167-3, 113 runs in arrears. It could have been a lot better. It could have been a lot worse. After three completely one-sided contests, we find ourselves in an old-fashioned ding-dong. It feels both thrilling and rather awful.
Barring some sort of meteorological mayhem - which you probably can't, bearing in mind the summer Australia has experienced so far - this match is likely to end in a result, which is imbuing every session and individual innings with the sort of series-deciding significance that sees nails chewed off and hair pulled out.
Who will emerge as the hero in this final act? Which is key plot development? Like the series itself, it is still up for grabs.
Three little moments stood out amid the tension.
In the morning session, Australia on the ropes at 190-8, Mitchell Johnson wafted wildly at a tempter from James Anderson and was a bat sticker away from an edge. He survived, and Australia prospered to add another 90 runs as they were eventually bowled out for 280.
Could Cook's reprieve after being caught off a no-ball swing the final Ashes Test fate? Photo: Reuters
Four hours later, England themselves wobbling, England's leading run-scorer Alastair Cook aimed a horrible clout at debutant Michael Beer and was caught at mid-on, only for umpire Billy Bowden to call for a replay that showed a half-inch no-ball. Cook, walking off for 46, was reprieved and ended unbeaten on 61.
Then, the close of play in sight and England cruising at 165-2, Kevin Pietersen aimed a needless, adrenalised hook at a well-signalled Johnson bouncer and was caught on the fence for 36.
The stage is set for someone. But no-one has yet made the decisive move.
Resuming on 134-4, they lost Brad Haddin to Anderson's ninth ball of the day to a horrible slash outside off and then, as if collectively aghast at that profligacy, decided to play with all the brio of a hungover Chris Tavare.
Between 67 and 77 overs only 13 runs were scored. A run-rate that was already pedestrian sat on its backside, folded its arms and refused to come out to play.
In their first innings at the MCG a week ago the Australian top order had thrown themselves over the cliff without bothering to look. Here at the SCG they spotted the signs reading 'DANGER' and decided against going anywhere near the edge.
It was Australia's slowest innings for 12 years, just one four coming in the first 75 minutes as England's bowlers kept the tourniquet tight and their fielders stopped everything that came within diving reach.
When Mike Hussey went for 33 from 99 balls to an inside edge by Paul Collingwood - the final delivery with the old ball - England looked likely to see Australia off for under 200 and take a decisive grip on the match, only for the ghosts of the Waca to suddenly start rattling their chains.
In Perth Australia's last two wickets had stuck on 67 runs, slapping and slogging their side back into contention after they had been eight down for 201.
Here they did even better. When Ben Hilfenhaus, a nailed-on number 11 in any other team, came to the crease to join Johnson, they were 189-8. By the time he departed they had reached the comparative high ground of 280, alive in both game and series and with momentum and noise behind them.
Johnson's 53 came off 66 balls, with five fours and a huge slogged six off Graeme Swann. Hilfenhaus was so inspired by what he saw that he took a little sashay down the track to launch Tim Bresnan deep into the crowd at midwicket.
As if on cue, England's reply also followed the Perth plan. In that third Test Strauss and Cook had strolled to 78 without loss, only for a rapid clatter of wickets to throw the game wide open.
Here they breezed to 98 for no wicket, the Australian bowling as inconsistent as England's had been miserly. Johnson shipped 23 from his first five overs, Hilfenhaus 35 from his first eight. Strauss had raced to the fastest half-century of his Test career, Cook offering steady support.
Hilfenhaus's cunning off-cutter changed all that. When Jonathan Trott went in the next over, playing on to a ball from Johnson he could have ignored to record his first duck in 30 Test innings, Australian danders were up. While Cook's escape stunned the home supporters into silence, KP's ill-advised and poorly-timed aggression sent them out into the streets in full voice.
English hopes rest heavily on Cook. Already in this innings he has passed several personal landmarks - 5,000 Test runs at a younger age than anyone bar Sachin Tendulkar, becoming only the second Englishman since 1970/1 to score 600 runs in an Ashes series down under and then going past the total scored by the other, Michael Vaughan with three days left to fill his boots.
Vaughan's runs could not alter the outcome of the series in 2002/3. Cook's already have, and could yet decide the final reckoning.
Johnson, that most perplexing and indiscriminate of fast bowlers, could yet be his side's match-winner. Top scorer in their first innings, he produced both filth and fury with the ball, alternating vicious and village green with seemingly no idea of what might happen next.
His fifth over showcased it beautifully. The first ball, full on leg stump, was clipped away for three. The second was short and wide of off and went for two in the opposite direction. His third, a full toss a yard wide of leg stump, drew jeers and laughter in equal measure. The fourth was fast and nasty, the fifth short and spitting and the sixth another full bunger.
In his next over he got Trott's wicket and suddenly became unplayable. Work that one out, because he certainly can't.
The pitch is doing something, but will be at its best for batting on day three. An England lead of 100 would put them in a box seat. A fourth-innings target of anything close to 250 would not.
It will not be for the faint-hearted.