Test match forecast: more excitement amid the gloom

The reason, as if it needs explaining, is the cricket. The benign juggernaut that is this Ashes series has swept millions into the gentle yet compelling world of leather and willow this summer. And it continued to serve up thrills and tension galore on Saturday and Sunday.

As Australia threatened to bat England out of the match and retain the series, the nation's new-found hero Andrew Flintoff skittled the tourists out, leaving them - impossible, as it seemed on Saturday evening - a handful of runs short of England's first innings total. Then, as that artful magician Shane Warne sneaked a wicket in his first over, ratcheting up the tension yet another unbearable notch, the September gloom descended on south London.

For the 23,000 fans who had paid handsomely for the pleasure of being at the Oval, there was only one response.

The two umpires consulted their light meters with the solemnity of Moses examining the tablets of stone at Mount Sinai and offered England the chance to sit out the rest of the day in the dressing room. They accepted. The crowd cheered.

Thanks to Flintoff's valiant efforts and the autumnal weather, the bookies now have England at 1/12 to win the series - not bad for a team that plummeted to 10/1 after losing the first Test at Lord's. William Hill is offering 14/1 for an England win in this Test - although given the weather a drawn match is by far the most likely outcome.

According to the Meteorological Office, an even older foe than Australia provided the unlikely ally that has brought England to the brink of victory. A weather system over France sent a 4,000ft-deep bank of cloud drifting across London. For much of the day, it hung just 400ft above the wicket, dimming Australian hopes of victory, but lighting up the spirits of England's fans.

The forecast for today is that while the cloud will hang around overnight, it will give way to clearer skies and afternoon sunshine. A full day's play looks highly likely - bailing out the cricket authorities whose late scheduling of this Test series to make way for the "sexier" one-day game almost backfired disastrously.

For those not among the lucky handful with a ticket, bosses are being urged to allow staff to follow the drama as it unfolds on the internet and on televisions. The Confederation of British Industry warned that as many as 14 per cent of absences may be down to the cricket. Delegates at the TUC, which is starting its annual congress in Brighton, will be kept abreast of the score. Tony Blair has already sent a letter of encouragement and support to the England captain Michael Vaughan, while the London Mayor Ken Livingstone is expected to approve an open-bus Trafalgar Square celebration for a victorious England.

The Government also indicated yesterday that it was likely to address fears that cricket may lose out on the Ashes dividend when television coverage moves away from terrestrial broadcast for the first time next summer. The Sports minister, Richard Caborn, is expected to announce the "re-listing" of domestic Test series among the so-called crown jewels of sport. When the Sky contract ends, coverage would have to return to free-to-air television.

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