Kevin Pietersen defiantly struck a mature century but England were staring down the barrel at 294 for seven at stumps on the third day of the third Ashes Test on Saturday, still 233 adrift on first innings.
Pietersen became England's all-time highest runscorer in all formats of the game on his way to a perfectly balanced 113 at Old Trafford, combining aggression against hapless off-spinner Nathan Lyon with watchful caution against the quicks.
He was dismissed lbw by left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Starc, although after a Pietersen review a small mark was visible on the Hotspot technology suggesting an inside edge.
In a Test dogged by controversy over the officials' use of the decision review system (DRS), third umpire Kumar Dharmasena opted to side with his on-field colleague Tony Hill.
Matt Prior was six not out at the close with Stuart Broad on nine as England still trailed the follow-on target of 328.
A doubt ahead of the match with a calf strain, Pietersen batted almost the whole day and raised both alarms aloft in a statuesque pose after reaching three figures with an audacious upper cut for four.
His 23rd Test ton and first in Manchester came after England won the first two Tests without him really contributing.
Australia, who amassed 527 for seven declared and need to win to have any chance of regaining the urn, will rue not reviewing a Shane Watson lbw shout against Pietersen on 62.
Australia captain Michael Clarke decided against a review but the team informed him from the balcony with a raised finger that television replays showed Pietersen would have been out.
Pietersen, 33, had got off to his usual nervous start but gradually settled with two straight pulled boundaries off Starc.
He then launched wicketless Lyon, who had been expected to be a key player on a flat but turning track, for two successive sixes down the ground to bring up his half-century.
England's caution before tea and the slow pace of play led to the almost obligatory Mexican wave through the capacity crowd and three beach balls found their way on to the field.
Pietersen was aided by Ian Bell, who hit centuries in the first two Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord's as England hone in on a third straight Ashes series win, and the pair batted through the middle session to reach their 100 partnership.
Bell, who survived a shout for caught behind on four when replays suggested a nick, made 60 before being bowled by Ryan Harris with a ball which jagged back slightly off the seam.
His dismissal brought in Jonny Bairstow and the inconsistent Yorkshireman again failed to guarantee his continued place in the side by edging Starc to Watson in the slips for 22.
Pietersen is a divisive figure in the game after his ill-fated time as skipper and one-game ban last year for sending controversial text messages to South African players but he was applauded by all corners of the revamped ground when dismissed.
That left Prior and Broad to painstakingly reach stumps.
The first wicket of the day was Jonathan Trott, who came in at four the previous evening after nightwatchman Tim Bresnan followed opener Joe Root back to the pavilion late on day two.
Trott continued his patchy series by awkwardly edging Harris to Clarke in the slips for five early on.
England captain Alistair Cook, who destroyed Australia with his big scores in the last tour Down Under, looked well set but went for 62 when he nicked Starc down the leg side and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin took a great one-handed diving catch.
Showers, forecast for Saturday but which never materialised, are also predicted on Sunday and Monday with rain arguably England's best chance of drawing the Test and keeping the Ashes.
Image: Kevin Pietersen celebrates after reaching his century
Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images