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A gutsy Ellyse Perry half-century steered Australia out of danger on day two but the hosts still have a mountain to climb on an attritional day two of the day-night Commonwealth Bank Women’s Test in Sydney.
Perry’s unbeaten 70, in concert with captain Rachael Haynes (33 not out), navigated Australia out of murky waters to 5-177 at stumps, trailing England by 103 runs.
Australia were in strife shortly after dinner at 4-95 having lost 3-13 in the evening session and the control of the match.
But the 5th-wicket stand of 73 under the full power of the North Sydney Oval kept the visitors at bay in what has the most entertaining session on a grinding day.
Perry is now the key player for Australia if they are to get close to England first innings total of 280 and potentially beyond it, although the home side boast strong batting depth, with No.10 Amanda-Jade Wellington owning a WNCL century this season.
There was an early scare for the hosts when opener Beth Mooney was struck in the face after dropping a catch in the warm-ups.
Fielding at gully in a slips catching drill, the ball burst through her hands and sent the Queenslander to the turf. Medical consultation and brief rest was all that was needed for recovery, as Mooney took the field at the start of the day.
Australia’s new-ball attack of Megan Schutt (2-52) and Perry (3-59) removed the final three England wickets on offer in the first session but not before the tourists added a further 45 runs to the overnight score of 7-235.
Schutt claimed two wickets in the afternoon; Fran Wilson top-edging a cramped pull to Perry at square leg and Anya Shrubsole hoicking the right-armer to Elyse Villani at deep backward square.
The 10th-wicket partnership of Sophie Ecclestone and Laura Marsh added 18 before Perry dismissed the latter to hand wicketkeeper Alyssa Healy her first catch of the match.
Mooney and Nicole Bolton sprinted from the field at the change of innings only to return 10 minutes later to face England’s formidable new-ball pair of Katherine Brunt and Shrubsole.
Bolton survived a huge lbw shout against Shrubsole, who was operating from around the wicket, but that was the only trouble either local batter faced in the remainder of the session.
England captain Heather Knight exclusively employed her strike pace pair almost exclusively before bringing on the off-spin of Marsh for the 14th and final over of the afternoon.
After the first break Bolton and Mooney cautiously moved the scored 0-48 before the former picked out Shrubsole at mid-wicket to gift Marsh a wicket and go for 24.
In a carbon copy dismissal, Mooney, who had battled to 27 from 101 balls, hit a long-hop from Ecclestone to Nat Sciver at mid-wicket, the catch comfortable held as the debutante bowler celebrated her maiden Test wicket.
The slide continued six overs later when veteran first-drop Alex Blackwell, with a full stride down the wicket, was judged lbw for six and suddenly Australia were 3-61.
Villani looked to be aggressive but her attacking nature led to her downfall as she edged a booming lofted drive to be well caught by ‘keeper Sarah Taylor standing up to the stumps to Shrubsole.
The wicket brought together Perry and Haynes and in tandem they consolidated before taking on the England attack.
Just as the final session looked to be completely Australia’s, Haynes was dropped at second slip and the next delivery trapped in front by Katherine Brunt with the second new ball.
Perry and No.7 Healy saw off England’s final charge with the new ball to leave the match evenly poised at the halfway stage.
While England’s total of 280 might not appear imposing, Australia must defy history if they are to come out victorious and seal the Women’s Ashes trophy.
Only once in the history of Women’s Test cricket has a team posted more than England’s score in the first innings and lost – New Zealand’s 9-289dec against England in Christchurch in 1969.
Australia XI: Beth Mooney, Nicole Bolton, Alex Blackwell, Ellyse Perry, Elyse Villani, Rachael Haynes (c), Alyssa Healy (wk), Tahlia McGrath, Jess Jonassen, Amanda-Jade Wellington, Megan Schutt
England XI: Lauren Winfield, Tammy Beaumont, Heather Knight (c), Georgia Elwiss, Nat Sciver, Sarah Taylor (wk), Katherine Brunt, Anya Shrubsole, Laura Marsh, Sophie Ecclestone, Fran Wilson
Commonwealth Bank Women's Ashes
Australia lead England 4-2
Australia squad (ODI and Test): Rachael Haynes (C), Alex Blackwell (VC), Kristen Beams, Nicole Bolton, Lauren Cheatle, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, Jess Jonassen, Tahlia McGrath, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Belinda Vakarewa (Test only), Elyse Villani, Amanda-Jade Wellington.
England squad: Heather Knight (c), Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt, Sophie Ecclestone, Georgia Elwiss, Jenny Gunn, Alex Hartley, Danielle Hazell, Laura Marsh, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Nat Sciver, Fran Wilson, Lauren Winfield, Danielle Wyatt.
First ODI Australia won by two wickets
Second ODI Australia won by 75 runs (DLS method)
Third ODI England won by 20 runs (DLS method)
Day-Night Test North Sydney Oval, November 9-12
First T20 North Sydney Oval, November 17
North Sydney Charity Partner: McGrath Foundation
Second T20 Manuka Oval, November 19
Third T20 Manuka Oval, November 21
Canberra Charity Partner: Lord's Taverners ACT