By Steve Douglas
Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell were leading England's recovery by tea on day three of a well-poised fourth Ashes test, just when a brilliant spell of pace bowling by Ryan Harris had put Australia in charge.
England was 32 runs behind after wrapping up Australia's first innings for 270 with the addition of just 48 from the overnight total of 222-5, but was soon wobbling on 49-3 after Harris removed Joe Root (2), Alastair Cook (22) and Jonathan Trott (23).
However, Pietersen (37) and Bell (37) dug in and put on an unbeaten 74 for the fourth wicket to give England a lead of 91 on a deteriorating pitch at Chester-le-Street.
Chasing anything more than 200 could be a struggle for Australia, which needs to win the test to keep alive hopes of drawing the five-match series. England leads it 2-0 and has already retained the Ashes urn.
A satisfying morning's work by England with the ball threatened to be undermined by familiar shortcomings with the bat, as the top order collapsed under the weight of some fine fast bowling by Harris.
Root fell just before lunch to a pearler that arrowed in then seamed away to nick the bail on off-stump, putting it among the deliveries of the series.
The dismissal of Cook soon after the resumption couldn't have been more different, though, with the England captain chasing a wide one and edging a loose shot to the trusty gloves of wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.
When Trott displayed his ongoing frailties down the legside by gloving a perfectly directed bouncer to Haddin, England was in real trouble - effectively 17-3 taking in its first-innings deficit. Harris and captain Michael Clarke combined in arranging leg-side field placings which worked a treat in leaving Trott very vulnerable in an area that used to be his strength.
With No. 6 batsman Jonny Bairstow in no form at all, the pressure was on the Pietersen-Bell partnership to deliver - and it came through with flying colours.
Pietersen was more circumspect than usual, solid in defence but not missing the chance to punish the poor ball. He couldn't turn down a pull shot off Peter Siddle that raced away for his third four.
Bell hogged the strike, with two trademark steered cuts for boundaries the highlights for a batsman who has got England out of a couple of pickles already this series - including his vital 109 in the second test at Lord's when England had been reduced to 28-3 in its first innings.
Nathan Lyon battled on gamely with his offspin but the second hour of the middle session was a tranquil period - just what England craved.
Their bowlers had earlier quickly wrapped up Australia's innings, with Graeme Swann removing Haddin for 13 and then overnight centurion Chris Rogers for 110 before the new ball was taken.
Rogers had resumed his first test century - the "sweetest innings" of his career - on 101 from overnight 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 wonderful diving catch. Australia reviewed but the much-maligned Hot Spot did its job and Rogers departed head down but to a warm ovation from spectators.
James Anderson also had a double for his first wickets of the match before Stuart Broad completed his ninth five-wicket haul in tests by trapping Harris lbw for 28.
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 didn't even wait for the reversal of the decision, with the players already on the way to the pavilion by the time Hill raised his finger to an empty wicket.