The fuse has been lit for an explosive return Ashes series in the summer, after Australian captain Michael Clarke and England star Kevin Pietersen traded barbs on an otherwise underwhelming day three at The Oval.
In the two overs before tea, with Ian Bell fresh at the crease, Clarke from slip and Pietersen standing at the non-striker’s end yelled school yard insults at each other.
Geoffrey Boycott claimed in BBC commentary that the tension started when Clarke told Pietersen “nobody likes you” and Pietersen retorted, “you’re the captain, and no one likes you.”
Emotions started to boil over as a result of England’s negative go-slow tactics with the bat – Australia desperate to salvage something from the Ashes.
England abandoned plans of winning the series 4-0 and simply dropped anchor in the knowledge that a forecast of rain on day four could make a draw almost inevitable.
At stumps, England are 4-247, going at an excruciating 2.13 runs an over from the 116 they’ve faced in over eight hours at the crease.
After one of the slowest days of Test cricket in recent memory, England still trail on the first innings by 245 runs and need 46 to avoid the follow-on.
Player of the series Ian Bell is 29 not out from 110 balls and debutant Chris Woakes 15no from 49 balls.
But the action wasn’t on the scoreboard, it was out in the middle.
Following on from Darren Lehmann branding Stuart Broad a “blatant cheat”, Clarke and Pietersen showed there’s no love lost between the teams with the first Test in Brisbane just three months away.
Clarke and Pietersen were smiling throughout most of their exchange which lasted from the moment Mitchell Starc removed Jonathan Trott lbw, to when the players walked to tea.
However, the umpires didn’t see the funny side, with Aleem Dar furious as he intervened on several occasions.
England jammed on the brakes on Friday and a capacity crowd at The Oval paid the price.
However, Starc (2-60) gave Australia a window of hope when he took the second new ball and struck with his very first delivery.
The left-armer trapped Trott for 40 to end a 58-run stand with Pietersen that was a yawn-inducing 159 balls in the making.
Bell was brought to the crease at 3-176 with England still 117 runs from avoiding the follow-on and the Australians took it as their queue to up the ante.
Wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and fellow slip Shane Watson also appeared to be getting in on the fun with Clarke.
Australia may take heart from the fact England have deferred to ultra-defensive mode when they’ve been put under pressure this series at Old Trafford and now at The Oval.
Pietersen was perhaps the wrong man to pick on, with the cocky right-hander unaffected by his exchange with Clarke and grinding his way to the slowest 50 of his Ashes career, from 133 balls.
In the 75th over, Pietersen found the fence and a disillusioned crowd roared in recognition – as it was England’s first boundary in 11 overs.
Starc was the pick of the bowlers for Australia, getting danger man Pietersen caught at slip with the first ball of his final spell to leave England 4-217.
That brought an end to another slow stand of 41 with Bell from 122 balls.
Ryan Harris made the first breakthrough of the day, continuing England captain Alastair Cook’s horror series by nabbing him caught behind for 25.
Spinner Nathan Lyon outsmarted the classy Joe Root in the 54th over for 68.