Bell lifts England

Ian Bell cemented his status as the top batsman of the Ashes series by caressing his way to a third century of the summer, ensuring England finished a fluctuating third day of the fourth test well on top. England closed on 234-5 and with a lead of 202 runs, mainly due to Bell's unbeaten and near-flawless knock of 105 — his 20th test century and the fourth in his last five Ashes tests. "I had a period against Sri Lanka and India in 2011 that felt pretty good but this is right up there for me in my career," said Bell, who is getting used to bailing out England's struggling top order. The Australians only added 48 to their overnight 222-5, with Chris Rogers out for 110, to restrict their first-innings lead to 32 but they established command when paceman Ryan Harris reduced England to 49-3 shortly after lunch in overcast conditions.

However, a fourth-wicket partnership of 106 between Bell and Kevin Pietersen (44) under brightening skies proved crucial for England, as was the fifth-wicket stand of 66 with Jonny Bairstow (28). The match is still up for grabs heading into the fourth day, during which rain is forecast, but England will be the happier of the two teams, considering its position at the start of the day and the poor start to its reply. In a reasonably low-scoring game, the lead is significant. "I wouldn't say it's slipped away," Harris said. "If we bat well and chase, hopefully, 250 to 300, the wicket is holding together pretty well. I think it's evenly poised, to be honest." England is 2-0 ahead in the five-match series and has already retained the Ashes urn. A draw or victory will win the team a third straight series over its great rival.

Bell jumped for joy and punched the air after chipping to mid-on for a single to bring up his century just before stumps, becoming the 10th Englishman to score three hundreds in an Ashes series. That Pietersen-Bell stand could prove to be the most decisive of the test, coming at a time when Harris had run through the top order of Joe Root (2), Alastaor Cook (22) and Jonathan Trott (23) in the space of 24 balls with yet another fine spell of pace bowling. Pietersen will be disappointed with the way he got out — he tried to work Nathan Lyon square from outside off stump but top-edged the ball to Rogers at cover — but he dug in for a crucial 84-ball knock, often playing second fiddle to the artistic Bell. Bell rarely looked like getting out on a track where you could never really feel 'in'. Two trademark steered cuts were early highlights while successive cover drives off Harris took him to his half-century, a total he has achieved in nine of his last 10 Ashes tests. "Once he gets in that mode, it's tough to get him out," Harris said. "He knows his game very well, he's very patient. And he's tough to bowl at, because you know you have to create something as a bowler, and if you don't get it quite right he'll smash you." Bairstow, who has been short of form this series, defied the critics by playing solidly alongside Bell and he came down the ground to smash Lyon for successive fours to indicate his stomach for the fight. He departed soon after the teams had been off for eight minutes for bad light, edging Lyon to Brad Haddin for the wicketkeeper's 24th catch of the series. Tim Bresnan (4) was with Bell at the close. The prognosis looked so encouraging for Australia when Trott was third man out, with England then effectively 17-3 taking account of the first-innings deficit. That was the culmination of a rip-roaring stint by Harris which started with an absolute pearler to bowl Root — the ball arrowed in, then seamed away to nick the bail on off-stump for what Harris described as the best delivery of his career — and continued with the dismissal of Cook, who wafted at a wide one to be caught behind. The top order's now-familiar shortcomings with the bat threatened to undermine a satisfying morning's work by England with the ball, with both Graeme Swann and James Anderson grabbing two wickets each before Stuart Broad completed his ninth five-wicket haul in tests.

Rogers had resumed his first test century on 101 but Swann found the faintest glance on the opener's glove, with the ball hitting his pad and rearing up to the short-leg area where wicketkeeper Matt Prior darted forward to take a diving catch. Broad wrapped up the innings by trapping Harris lbw for 28 in comical circumstances. Umpire Tony Hill originally gave it not out but England reviewed and there was laughter around the Riverside ground when replays showed how plumb it was. Harris saw the video replay and didn't even wait for the official reversal of the decision, with the players already on their way to the dressing rooms by the time Hill raised his finger to an empty wicket. "I tried to walk," Harris said, laughing, "but he didn't give me out." Australia's bid for victory won't have been helped by a right hip/groin injury sustained by Shane Watson midway through an over he was bowling. He walked off gingerly and will continue to receive treatment.