Clarke's century lifts Aus

Michael Clarke dragged Australia back into the Ashes series by hitting his 24th test century against a lackluster England, taking

the spotlight away from more umpiring controversy on the opening day of the third test. The captain became the first Australian to make three figures this series as he reached stumps on 125 not out, with the tourists in command on 303-3 as they look for a victory to stay alive in the Ashes. On a hot and humid day at Old Trafford, Australia's batsmen finally found some form on a good wicket with opener Chris Rogers hitting a test-best 84 and Steve Smith adding 70 in an unbeaten 174-run stand for the fourth wicket with Clarke. "As a batting side, we have been under a lot of pressure and copped a lot of criticism," Rogers said. "Today the pressure was off us a bit and we could play with a bit of freedom and things worked out much better for us."

Swann found some turn at a ground widely seen as a spinner's paradise — Shane Warne produced the so-called "Ball of the Century" here 20 years ago — to grab two wickets but England's pace attack toiled and struggled with their footing. Stuart Broad limped off for six overs midway through the final session. "We stuck to our task and it could have gone a couple of different ways today," England bowler Tim Bresnan said. "With the chances we made it could have been six down. Hopefully we'll get the rewards tomorrow." England is 2-0 ahead in the five-match series and needs a draw or victory to keep hold of the urn. That might not be so straightforward on this evidence, and is on the back foot for the first time this series.

Clarke has been the captain of a sinking ship this summer and his own form has dipped as a result, making just 102 runs in his four previous innings this series. As Australia's one world-class batsman, the team depends heavily on Clarke and he delivered under huge pressure. After reaching his hundred with a scampered single, he held his bat aloft, wiped the sweat off his brow and then kissed the badge on his helmet. "He's such a key person in out batting side that if he scores runs, it makes it easier on everybody else," Rogers said. "We need him scoring runs ... it's massive for us." Australia's batting has been far too open and expansive this series — the team hadn't reached 300 before today — but the performance was noticeably more patient here after winning the toss. Clarke, in particular, picked his moments to pounce, with a lofted uppercut for four off Broad when 79 and then a straight drive down in the 90s being his highlights.

His knock was all the more impressive as he had come into the middle with Australia on 82-2 and its fast start in danger of being wasted, with Shane Watson (19) edging Bresnan to Alastair Cook at first slip and then Khawaja becoming the latest batsman to be left aggrieved by DRS.

The 35-year-old Rogers shared a 76-run opening partnership with Watson and splayed England's pace attack to all corners of Old Trafford, with five fours in the two overs after the drinks break, bringing up his fifty off just 49 balls. He started getting twitchy as he entered his 80s, playing and missing twice. He then became irritated by movement in his eyeline in the pavilion and Swann seized his chance, claiming his second wicket with the very next ball. Smith by contrast grew into his innings, hitting seven fours and looking just as well set as Clarke by the time stumps was called. With Clarke having a penchant for going on to make big scores — he had four double centuries last year alone — Australia's bowling attack, which features recalled pair Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc, should have some much-needed leeway when England come into bat.

Australia also has David Warner to come, after the powerful batsman was brought back into the team after serving a ban for punching England's Joe Root in a late-night bar-room incident in June following a Champions Trophy match.