England, with six wickets in hand, are 46 runs adrift of the follow on with two days to go at The Oval.
Attritional England move closer to draw in fifth Ashes Test
Ian Bell was left holding the fort for England yet again as they struggled for runs on the third day of the final Ashes Test against Australia at The Oval yesterday.
England, who at 3-0 up had already won the five-match series, were 247 for four at stumps, still 245 runs behind Australia's first innings 492 for nine declared but needing just 46 more runs to avoid the follow-on.
Bell, who came into this match having scored exactly 500 runs in the series with three hundreds, was 29 not out off 110 balls in nearly two-and-a-half hours at the crease.
Meanwhile Test debutant Chris Woakes, Bell's Warwickshire teammate, was 15 not out on his debut.
Several England batsmen got in but failed to press on, with Kevin Pietersen making an unusually restrained 50 in 133 balls.
Opener Joe Root struck 68, his highest score since his 180 at Lord's last month, and he said he was relieved to find his form again.
"You're just so hungry for runs and it's frustrating at times, you have to keep believing in your own game and hopefully it'll turn around at some point," he told Sky Sports.
"You go through periods where you score quite freely and then it doesn't come as easy, you have to keep working at your game.
England scored 215 runs in the day's 98.3 overs, the run-rate rarely rising above two an over, in a match where victory would mean they had won four Tests in a home Ashes for the first time.
But there was still something to be gained for England by denying their arch-rivals a consolation success — Australia's last 'winless' Ashes was in 1977 — ahead of the return series in Australia in November.
If Australia do not win the match their winless streak will stretch to nine Tests, with their last victory coming back in January against Sri Lanka.
England resumed yesterday on 32 without loss and Root and captain Alastair Cook began the day solidly as they got England through the first hour with little trouble.
But Cook's poor series with the bat continued when he followed a delivery angled across him from Harris and edged to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin for 25.
It was an all-too familiar exit for Cook in a series where he has scored 243 runs in nine innings with a best of 62 at an average of just 27 - a far cry from his triumphant 2010/11 Ashes tour of Australia where he made 766 at 127.66 with three hundreds.
Root's pull off Peter Siddle saw him to a 145-ball fifty with eight fours, but, after lunch, he made a tame exit on 68 when he fell into an obvious trap by top-edging a sweep off spinner Nathan Lyon straight to Shane Watson at short fine leg, with England now 118 for two.
Of his dismissal, Root said: "I was trying to get the hard sweep away, maybe get four or, if not, one," he said.
"It was disappointing, having done a lot of the hard work and got a good partnership together. It's disappointing from the team viewpoint more than anything."
There were ironic cheers from a capacity crowd when new batsman Pietersen drove leg-spinner Smith for four — the first boundary in 11 overs.
But the first delivery with the new ball saw Jonathan Trott lbw for 40 to left-arm paceman Mitchell Starc.
By contrast Bell, a Warwickshire teammate of Trott, got off the mark fifth ball with a square-driven four off Starc.
Pietersen's bottom-edged boundary - England's first in 14 overs - off Test debutant James Faulkner saw him to a fifty, but he failed to add to his total when he edged Starc to Watson, now at first slip.
Woakes batted solidly with Bell to the close to leave England on track to avoid defeat, though they still need another 46 runs today on the fourth day of the match to avoid the follow on.
Of the slow scoring nature to the day, Root said praise had to be given to the accuracy of the Australia bowling attack, who have bowled 34 maidens in the innings.
"It's Test cricket as well, blokes will bowl well and you've got to work hard to combat it," he said.
"You have to give a bit of credit to Australia, they bowled well at us. The pitch was quite slow, it's hard to time. You've got to be patient, we need to carry on tomorrow as we finished tonight."
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE