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.

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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.

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.

The latest on-field clash comes on the back of Australian coach Darren Lehmann admitting his players have been calling England fast bowler Stuart Broad “everything under the sun”.

England opener Joe Root, who set the tone with a dour 68 from 184 balls, said only time will tell what relations will be like by the time the series heads down under.

“We’ll find out at the end of the series if we can all have a beer together,” Root said.

“It’s Ashes cricket, you play cricket hard on the field … I don’t think any of it is malicious.

“Australia are there to win games of cricket, they will try everything they can to do that.”

It’s clear there’s no love lost between the two teams, but Australian quick Peter Siddle said the verbals weren’t out of control.

“I think it’s going along fine,” he said.

“It’s been a tough, long, hard tour.

“I think we were just asking them what they were up to (with their slow run rate)… if they were thinking about playing a few strokes or pushing the runs along. It was pretty tame really.”

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.

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 (50 from 133) 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.

Clarke, KP trade insults amid Test grind