England had to work hard to eke out four wickets in more than 50 overs as they kept their victory push on course against the Australia Invitational XI at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Joe Root’s 75 helped the tourists to 418 all out and a first-innings lead of 114 by mid-afternoon on day three.
But after Aaron Finch had led a fine riposte with 59, Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin grabbed crucial wickets as the home side ended on 153 for four.
Finn endured a difficult three-over new-ball spell, which began with successive fours by Ed Cowan from the first two deliveries – a pull, then a cut – and cost 20 runs in all.
A previously out-of-form Finch took most advantage, however, dominating the scoring with a 43-ball fifty, completed with his 10th four in the final over of the afternoon off Finn.
In early evening, Finch slog-swept Swann high over midwicket for six but went to the next delivery with an attempted repeat, lobbing the ball off an outside-edge into the hands of Michael Carberry at point to end an opening stand of 81.
There remained little in the pitch and success did not come easy against batsmen of the calibre of Cowan and number three Callum Ferguson.
But England’s seamers upped their game, each rewarded with one wicket as they bowled in tandem with Swann and under cloud cover.
Broad bowled the stubborn Cowan from round the wicket, beating the left-hander’s back-foot defence.
Kurtis Patterson then escaped on four when he edged Finn high to first slip, where Jonathan Trott – standing in for an over while captain Alastair Cook briefly left the field – could not hold the chance.
But Finn was rewarded with the wicket of Ferguson, when he jagged one back to bowl him between bat and pad, and then Rankin had Ben Rohrer edging a faulty pull behind.
England, trying to jockey a position for a timely victory to send them on the way to Brisbane for next week’s Ashes opener, had begun a showery morning on 302 for five, two behind on first innings.
Their progress was stalled by rain and an extra five-minute stoppage while Root had treatment to his right little finger.
He took a glancing blow on his hand as an awkward delivery from left-armer Josh Lalor followed him and ended up hitting him in the box.
Pain-killing tablets were required and Root was to spend time off the field in the early stages of the hosts’ second innings, but if there was an injury scare it appeared shortlived.
Around 50 minutes were lost in three breaks for rain before lunch, yet Root nonetheless combined with his fellow Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow in a stand of 106 which extended into early afternoon.
He quickly recovered his composure after the painful blow and completed England’s quickest half-century of the innings, from 67 balls, with his sixth four a memorable straight-drive off Chris Tremain.
Bairstow, deputising here for Matt Prior who remains a doubt for the Gabba because of his left calf injury, also negotiated the second new ball.
But he could not quite complete England’s fifth fifty of the innings, falling two runs short when he went after a short ball from Tremain and edged behind.
England’s last five wickets fell for just 46 in under 10 overs.
Broad poked a catch to cover and Root – perhaps under orders for more quick runs – was bowled, pulling at Nic Bills.
But long-suffering leg-spinner James Muirhead was the main beneficiary of English urgency, picking up the last two wickets to finish with 4-115.
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