Australia 527-7 dec & 172-7 England 368: England can retain Ashes as rain looks to frustrate bold Aussies
England did not much resemble a team who were 2-0 ahead in the series and intent on making it three
England will attempt to secure the Ashes for the third time in succession on Monday. There are several ways in which this happy and unusual state of affairs may be reached.
One is a fighting draw full of grit and gallantry which goes right down to the wire, another is an improbably glorious victory marked by its bravado and panache. The more likely scenario, however, is that the match peters out in typical Manchester rain which has been often forecast in the past few days but had skirted the ground, as if out of respect for its refurbishment.
The latter conclusion would be deeply unsatisfactory, especially as Australia have been splendid in trying to gain a foothold in the series during the first four days of the third Investec Test. They have done more than enough to deserve the opportunity to earn a win of their own which would sustain their chances of taking the series.
Of course, any Englishman wants to win the Ashes, as Kevin Pietersen observed in explaining his determined battle for fitness on Saturday night after his fourth Test hundred against Australia. But to do so in a match ruined by rain in which the opposition have been superior in almost every session would not be the preferred manner.
By the time bad light and eventually rain - perhaps, after all, it felt that it ought to come to England's rescue - brought the day to a premature end, the tourists were 172 for 7 in their second innings, a lead of 331, after racing along at almost five runs an over. It was a margin which opened up all manner of possibilities.
England did not much resemble a team who were 2-0 ahead in the series and intent on making it three. They were guilty when Australia were trying to get on with things in the afternoon of dragging their feet. It was not exactly time-wasting but it was a definite reluctance to keep the game moving at the accepted pace.
Players are so well versed in low-over rates these days that it was hard to tell the difference. The extra half hour is needed on most days of play and England would probably not have exceeded that.
But in the circumstances, with Australia's foot on the throttle, it did not quite look right to be applying the handbrake. When it strayed into the realm of delaying decisions on whether to take a review it was perhaps going too far.
On the other hand, Alastair Cook, the England captain who presumably orchestrated operations, is hardly paid to make life easy - "there you go, Pup, we'll squeeze an extra four overs in this hour just so you can have the opportunity to whack a few more runs." The more overs that England did not bowl, naturally, in theory gave them many more overs to bat.
If Australia were to go on and win the remaining two matches in the series from here it would always beg the eternal question of "what if". England can answer their critics by showing a different side to their nature as well as the quality of the play when battle is re-engaged in Durham as early as Friday.
The course of the rest of the Test was determined by England's purposeful play in the opening half hour of the day. Whereas on the previous evening they had been cautious to the point of fear, they strode out clearly determined to gather as quickly as possible the 34 more runs they needed to avoid being invited to follow on.
Stuart Broad, who is having an effective series with the bat, drove fiercely in his direct stand tall style, Matt Prior punished anything that was remotely loose. The gap that mattered was swiftly closed.
Given the state of the match and their need to win it, Australia would presumably have asked England to bat again. A wicket or two with the new ball and anything was possible.
With the option no longer on the table Broad was soon out, feathering a forward prop against Nathan Lyons behind. Job done, he tucked his bat smartly under his arm and walked without waiting for the umpire which would have spared him a whole heap of opprobrium being heaped on his head had he done similarly at Trent Bridge last month.
Prior and the rest ate up a few more overs but England's deficit was still 159 runs. Australia came out with a flourish, once more amending their batting order. In came the belligerent David Warner (with the bat, that is) to slug with Chris Rogers and they went at a lick.
Rogers went playing a one-day shot, Warner played his role impressively. He was fortunate to survive England's appeal for a catch behind but it merely postponed the poetic justice of his being caught by Joe Root at deep square leg. The last time Warner aimed a blow in Root's direction was in a Birmingham bar in June and he came off worse then as well.
The way in which Australia batted - the way they had to bat - understandably brought wickets. Usman Khawaja was deftly bowled round his legs by Graeme Swann, Shane Watson hoisted Tim Bresnan to third man, a bristling Steve Smith was run out after being sent back by his captain while looking for two.
So it went on as England set ring fields, being punctilious in doing so. Clarke was probably on the verge of declaring when the cloud cover which had been increasing for an hour persuaded the umpires that it was too dark.
It would have been fit to continue had Cook been prepared to bowl spin from both ends and that would have been taking the noble art of sportsmanship too far.
Clarke was miffed when the umpires, the sole arbiters, decreed it was not fit to continue. Shortly afterwards, it rained. Assuming an immediate declaration this morning, England need 332 to win the Ashes, rather than merely retain them. It may be academic.
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