England were on the cusp of securing their first outright Ashes series win in Australia in 24 years after manoeuvring the hosts into a hopeless position on day four of the final Test.

A century from Matt Prior (118) added to earlier hundreds from Alastair Cook and Ian Bell saw England to 644 all out - their highest ever total Down Under and enough to tee up what will surely be a third innings victory, and a 3-1 series win.

They ended three wickets short on day four after reducing Australia to 213 for seven on the back of a 364-run first-innings deficit.

Chris Tremlett took two wickets in as many balls towards the end of the day to force the extra half-hour but Australia managed to hold on to ensure some play on the final day of the series.

The tourists were in an impregnable position on the back of three successive century stands, concluding with Prior and Tim Bresnan's 102 for the eighth wicket.

Prior completed his fourth Test hundred with a brutal drive past cover off Michael Beer for his ninth four, to go with one six, from 109 balls.

Having learned before start of play that Paul Collingwood has decided to retire at the end of this, his 68th Test, Prior and Bresnan ploughed on seamlessly from 488 for seven.

They made batting look a simple occupation, under the sunniest skies of this contest so far, first against Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus and then spin at both ends with an ageing ball.

When Johnson (four for 168) took the third new ball he did so to much taunting about his inconsistent line from England's Barmy Army.

His first over with it disappeared for 10 runs, but there was minor revenge for the left-armer with the wicket of Bresnan - pushing away from his body on the front foot and caught low down at second slip.

Prior finally had to go when he chased an upper-cut, with little foot movement, and edged Hilfenhaus (three for 121) behind. Umpire Billy Bowden called for video evidence to rule out the no-ball, the third such occurrence in the last two Tests, but technology marginally spared Australia further suffering this time.

The same could not be said of Johnson - whose final over was dispatched for 20 runs by England's last pair, courtesy principally of Graeme Swann.

Tremlett was last out - by which time each of Australia's four frontline bowlers had conceded more than 100 runs.

Then after an encouraging opening stand of 46, a self-inflicted blow started the rot again for the hosts.

Shane Watson blazed seven boundaries in his 38, but has developed a strange fragility when it comes to running between the wickets.

Today's mix-up spelled the end for him, by the length of the pitch after he and Phil Hughes got their wires crossed over a second run.

Hughes did not last much longer either, following some sideways movement off the pitch from Bresnan and edging behind for Prior to cling on to a slightly ungainly catch.

Debutant Usman Khawaja helped stand-in captain Michael Clarke put on 65 for the third wicket until he departed in similar fashion to Hughes - James Anderson the bowler this time.

England's pace spearhead then reserved a much better delivery to have Clarke also caught behind, pushing forward at one that left him from a line that forced the batsman to play.

Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin teamed up but not for long, Bresnan making the key breakthrough as Hussey went for 12, cutting straight to Pietersen who held a sharp chance at gully.

Steve Smith came in to join Haddin in the middle but the latter fell soon after.

A Tremlett delivery reared up at Haddin and with the batsman in a muddle and trying to pull out of a hook, he could only top edge for Prior to take an easy catch.

With the next ball, England were on the verge of victory as Johnson went for a golden duck clean bowled by a full, swinging delivery to leave Australia 171-7.

Tremlett missed out on the hat-trick but England secured the extra half an hour they wanted to secure victory.

There were a couple of edgy moments, not least a Siddle flash over the slips off Anderson in the penultimate over, but England were made to wait for the final celebrations.