Jonathan Trott entered Ashes folklore with the innings of an instant veteran, as England's batsmen sauntered into a position of absolute dominance, only for Australia's openers to keep their nerves a-jangling with a coolly compiled 80-run stand, on another enthralling day at The Oval. Trott's 119 from 193 balls was the 18th century by a debutant in England's Test history and the first against Australia since Graham Thorpe in 1993, but given the magnitude of the occasion, it ranked among the finest of all time. His efforts left Australia facing a climb as forbidding as Mont Ventoux, as Andrew Strauss declared on 373 for 9, with a massive target of 546 in the bag.
But Australia, to their credit, refused to yield to any presumptions of defeat and decided attack was the best route to the summit. Simon Katich and Shane Watson banished any lingering demons from the first innings, and backed themselves to play their shots against the new ball, and the policy paid off in an opening stand of 80, as they reached the close with their hopes renewed and England's anxieties sharpened in a manner reminiscent of the final day at Lord's. Nevertheless, as the ball lost its hardness and Stuart Broad's offcutters began to grip, it was clear that survival will become harder and harder the longer the innings wears on. Having collapsed from 73 for 0 to 160 in their first innings, Australia know just how tough the next six sessions are sure to be.
The Oval pitch, the subject of much controversy overnight, carried on producing wild puffs of dust from almost every delivery, but as England's lower-order clubbed a supine attack to all corners of South London, adding 205 in the last 37 overs of the innings, the heat went out of the debate about its merits. In fact, England's progress seemed at times almost too comfortable for their series prospects, as Australia's bowlers abandoned any hope of salvaging their team's situation and instead settled for damage limitation with a view to batting out for the draw.
Nevertheless, the steep bounce that the part-time spinner, Marcus North, had continued to extract was enough to confirm the suspicions that batting last, with men packed around the bat, would be a fraught experience. Sure enough, Swann entered England's attack as early as the ninth over, and though he didn't make a breakthrough with the still-hard new ball, he found sufficient purchase to suggest his time will come. For the time being, however, North, who came into the game with just two Test wickets to his name, emerged as the most potent spinner on show, with 4 for 98 from 30 testing overs.
If the expectant buzz around The Oval had been dampened a fraction by the close, then it would never have become so electric in the first place, had it not been for Trott's magnificent scene-setter. For the second time in consecutive Ashes battles at the venue, England's visions of glory were filtered through a South African-born lens, and perhaps that same filter removed the fear of failure as well, because as with Kevin Pietersen's unforgettable 158 in 2005, Trott scarcely blinked for an instant.
He had been a controversial selection for such a pressure-cooker contest, but to give the selectors credit where it is due, the skill, determination and confidence of his performance made the men around him in England's middle-order look like the international novices. His nerveless shot selection, at an even tempo of roughly a run every two balls, provided the scaffolding for a series of carefree cameos at the other end - including a farewell frolic from Andrew Flintoff, and a spanking 63 from 55 balls from Swann, who fine-tuned his confidence going into the defining fourth innings.
Aside from a brush with a Peter Siddle bouncer, and a hairy moment on 97 when he deflected Ben Hilfenhaus inches past his leg stump, Trott barely played a false stroke until the very moment of England's declaration, when he chopped Stuart Clark to North in the gully. In fact, his most palpable moments of alarm came from his first two deliveries of the morning, first when Siddle believed he had made the breakthrough with an off-stump lifter (umpire Asad Rauf correctly ascertained that the ball had flicked only the thigh pad on the way through to Brad Haddin) and then when Trott followed up that escape with an awkward spoon into the covers off a leading edge.
With impressive ease, however, he put those dramas out of his mind, perhaps sensing that he'd experienced the most capricious deliveries that could come his way. He added 118 for the fourth wicket with his overnight partner Andrew Strauss, to ensure there would be no continuation of the late-evening hiccup that had taken a layer of sheen off England's remarkable second day, and as early as the first hour of the day, Australia's hopes of an attainable run-chase had been quashed.
Strauss's contribution was an unflappable and agenda-setting 75, which served as a moist flannel on his country's fevered brow. He left the ball with nerveless certainty outside off, demanding that Australia's bowlers bowled to his strengths rather than probe for non-existent weaknesses, and when he lashed Clark for three fours from nine balls faced as England upped the ante in the half-hour before lunch, he looked a dead-cert for his, and England's, second century of the series. With four balls remaining of the session, however, he was lured by a ball of fuller length from North, who extracted enough rip off the track to find the edge to slip.
Matt Prior, for once, played only a minor role in England's momentum shift - although he did manage to send Ricky Ponting into the lunch break with a mouthful of blood after drilling the ball into his face at silly mid-off. Three overs after the break, he called for a crazy single after picking out the dead-eyed Katich in the covers, and was run out by a distance for 4. Nevertheless, his departure ensured that the crowd got one last glimpse of the man they really wanted to see, and when Flintoff clubbed his second delivery violently through midwicket for four, it was abundantly clear how he intended to pace his final Test innings.
Three more boundaries followed, each greeted with rapture, but alas the magic could not last. With 22 from 17 balls to his name, Flintoff came down the track once more to launch North into the Harleyford Road, but Siddle steadied himself on the long-on ropes to pouch a simple catch. The Aussies stood in the middle to applaud Flintoff back to the pavilion as he saluted all corners of the ground, while down the steps - replacing him in every sense - came the man of the moment, Broad.
He did not disappoint either. Feeding off Mitchell Johnson's regressive line and length, he dabbed the first of his five fours through backward point, then climbed into North in a violent over containing three further biffs down the ground, the first of which went arrow-straight back over the bowler's head to land just inside the boundary's rope. He eventually took one swipe too many, and picked out Ponting in the covers, but into the fray strode Swann, in a mood for violence - just as he had been in the final innings at Headingley two weeks ago, when England's predicament could hardly have been more different, but when the licence for thwacking had been every bit as liberating.
With Trott trotting along beside him, Swann belted two-thirds of England's runs in an eighth wicket of 90 from 80 deliveries that left observers wondering if he'd win the race to three figures. Australia took the new ball in that period as well, but offered Swann far too many opportunities to unfurl his exuberant drive, which accounted for six of his nine fours before Hilfenhaus pulled his length back at last and skidded a bouncer off a miscued hook to Haddin.
For the best part of the day, England had simply had it too easy, and by the close, Watson and Katich had shown them just how ready Australia are to hand over their urn. All the same, the series is coming to a crescendo, and as in that unforgettable summer of 2005, there is an air of anxious expectation in SE11.