England the world over watch, wait and pray for rain

Never has sporting triumph been so anticipated, never so agonisingly long to arrive. After many summers of yearning, English patriots everywhere are doing their bit to try to secure a victory
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The Independent Online

For those who can't bear to see the score please look away now: it's Australia 277 runs for the loss of just two wickets, 96 runs behind our 373 after a day when the terrifyingly efficient Australian batting was thwarted by what Tony Blair would call - and no doubt will when he invites the England players round to No 10 - the People's Weather.

We have not won a Test series against Australia for 18 years, and now, after yesterday, we stand just six sessions away from it. Two more days of inconsequential trotting on and off the pitch for interruptions and victory will be ours.

Yet behind those simple facts lies the story not of our cricketers raising their game - they didn't - but of ordinary Englishmen and women rallying to the cause in the nation's hour of need.

For, never mind the shades of W G Grace, Len Hutton and "Typhoon" Tyson, it was the spirit of an entirely different kind of patriot that came to the rescue at The Oval yesterday as the prospect of the longed-for Ashes victory faded under the onslaught of the Australian openers. Step forward and take a bow, Michael "Hurricane" Fish.

While the sporting descendants of old WG were struggling to take an Australian wicket, it was, we can reveal, "Hurricane" Fish's successors at the Met Office who sprang heroically into action. While our lads in white were making heavy weather of the Australians, our forecasters were trying their level best to do the same to the climate.

Darren Bett, BBC weather forecaster, confessed yesterday afternoon: "We have been doing a rain dance around the office this afternoon, singing and chanting. We had a pow-wow with the chief forecaster in the Met Office in Exeter and we came to the conclusion that we needed to do a rain dance. So we did."

And it worked. All morning and early afternoon Australia had added to their overnight total of 112 for no wicket. By 1.30 they stood at 185 for none. A week's prematurely triumphalist ravings in the daily press seemed to be working its ju-ju as the colour drained from English cheeks.

But then, a wicket: Langer, the new centurion, falling to Steve Harmison. And then, most blessedly of all, rain - welcome, glorious, refreshing, sweet, purifying, but, most of all, delaying, rain. The weather staff's voodoo had worked its magic. It was not torrential, it wasn't going to last right through September, but it was rain, it was wet, and it was here. Never, in the field of English weekends have so many people been so glad to see so many clouds. As Margaret Thatcher would have said if only we'd had the presence of mind to contact her: "Rejoice! Rejoice!" It was 1.37, and rain had stopped play. But, as the players trooped from the field, the rest of the nation was still anxious to do their bit.

Peter Cullen, for instance, even though he was not in the country. " I've just finished cleaning the windows here in Luxembourg," he emailed the BBC website. "Bit of extra water here if needed. Come on England!"

That was the spirit. And, just to prove that the interruption had not made us all go soft and sportsmanlike, Pete Robinson chipped in: "Here in Croydon - seven miles from The Oval - the sun's been out all day. The cricket gods are with us."

The Oval sky lightened a bit, thought about it, and darkened again. And then, our other great national secret weapon was deployed: teatime - to be taken, said the announcement, not at 3.40 but half an hour earlier, with play resuming at 3.30. Horror of horrors, it duly did. Australia pass the 200 mark. A few half-hearted appeals from our bowlers are rejected. And then, drinks. That's the thing with cricket, you're never far away from a little breather and refreshing cordials.

Would any of these interludes break the vice-like concentration of the Aussies? No. But then, English hearts skipped. A catch, a very palpable catch, by Bell off the spin bowling of Giles with Australian captain Ricky Ponting at the crease. It was perfect in almost every way - except one. Ponting didn't hit, the umpire decides. And, overhead, the most menacing sight of all: sunshine, creeping its smug way into view. Hayden reaches his hundred. Where oh where is the rain?

And then it arrives. Great dolloping splotches of it, falling vertically down from what we could now describe as the heavens, rather than a mere sky. The players go off, the covers come on. The day, it appears, is done. But no. At 5.25 they come out again. A half hour of steady run-making, and then the second scalp of the day as Flintoff dismisses Ponting.

Another 20 minutes or so passed, a few more overs were fidgeted through, and then the skies took on that happy, leaden hue once more. Willed on by the collective will of The People, the clouds thickened, the gloom grew, and our spirits lifted.

The umpires, in one of the game's rituals, then "offered the batsmen the light". This, lest any cricket newcomers think the umpires were proferring matches for a celebratory Woodbine, is rather an invitation for batsmen to deem the ambient light too poor to continue. The Australians accepted. Exuent all.

So the struggle for the destiny of the Ashes, not held by England since 1989, will continue today and tomorrow; and may well be decided not on the ground, but in the air. Galloping like the Seventh Cavalry over the hill Ovalwards, courtesy of some down-in the dumps millibars, is, so today's forecast goes, a day of rain interruptions, followed by brighter, drier stuff tomorrow. But the people of England are not relying on it.

A website - www.raindancefortheashes.co.uk - has been set up; newspapers have printed directions for convoluted rain dance steps, and everywhere Englishmen and women are doing what they can. Fiona Walshe, for instance, who lives but a few minutes' walk from The Oval and was doing her bit, too. "We are planning a huge barbecue on Sunday so I can guarantee it will rain. We have absolutely no cover outside the house and my husband left his free Oval umbrella in the pub this week."

It's inspiring, even humbling to read of such self-sacrifice. Even if the Ashes don't come back for a thousand years, men will still say: "This was their silliest hour."

Downpours save the day: a guide to the power of precipitation in history

Praying for rain has become a national preoccupation this weekend as cricket fans begged for divine intervention in the Ashes clash at the Oval. Here is a beginner's guide to the history of rain saving the day:

* The Battle of Crécy, 1346. The French army of King Philip sent an advanced force of Genoese crossbow men to tackle the English ranks but the rain wet the bowstrings, meaning their quarrels fell short. The Genoese and French panicked, and Edward won the day.

* The Battle of Agincourt, 1415. A torrential downpour the night before the clash turned the battlefield into a mudbath. When the French cavalry charged, the English frightened the horses sending the French knights - complete with heavy armour - crashing into the mud.

* The Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte received a crushing military defeat on the fields near the Belgian village of Waterloo, about nine miles south of Brussels. Heavy rain on the eve of the battle forced Napoleon to delay his attack, allowing the Prussians to arrive in time to tilt the balance.

* Brian Cathcart, author of the book Rain says: "In Pride and Prejudice rain forces Elizabeth and Darcy to spend more time indoors than planned, leading to romance. In the 1930s musical hit Top Hat, rain saved the day again for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire when they sang together on the streets of London to the classic 'Isn't this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?'"

* The Association of British Insurers say Britons can thank the heavy rains of late 2003 and early 2004 for a decrease in home subsidence. After the long, hot summer of 2003, insurance claims involving subsidence rose from about 6,000 to 22,000. These reduced following the winter rains.

* At Wimbledon in 2003, rain came to Tim Henman's rescue as the British number one teetered on the brink of defeat. He trailed Sébastien Grosjean by two sets to one when rain stopped play. Henman returned the next day to win.

Tom Anderson

WEATHER

Sunday

A depression in the Bay of Biscay is causing the unsettling weather across Europe. The sporadic rain forecast for London is likely to hinder Australia but the Met Office can't say for certain where it will fall - there is a 30 per cent of chance of rain over the Oval.

Monday

Only a 10 per cent chance of rain, with sunshine predicted in the afternoon, meaning there will be a final day of play. "September is a variable month," the Met Office spokesman said. "Autumn is pushing through, meaning unsettled weather develops."

'IoS' QUIZ

Do you go all googly when Warney gets his flipper out? Have you found yourself glued to the television watching cricket for the first time in your life? Or do you stand around the hospitality tent with a Pimm's in your hand saying: "Why doesn't the bowler try underarm?" Find out here what kind of cricket fan you are - there might not be much else to do if the rain holds.

What are the Ashes?

A) The remains of a burnt bail, kept in a small wooden pot since England lost to Australia in 1882

B)The remains of WG Grace

C) A bloody good chance to network in an executive box

When did you first hear about Freddie?

A) When he was an apple-cheeked youngster thrashing about for Lancashire.

B) A couple of weeks back, bashing the Aussies for six on the news

C) Freddie who? Didn't he sing, 'I'm too sexy for my shirt?'

What is Shane Warne's greatest asset?

A) The ability to deceive any batsman with the wickedest of spins

B) The ability to charm an endless succession of Sheilas with the wickedest of chat-up lines

C) Hmm! I'm on a sticky wicket with this one, I'm afraid

OK then. What is a sticky wicket?

A) A damp pitch that causes problems for the batsman because the ball doesn't "come on" as expected to the bat

B) The dirty Aussies super- gluing their bails to the top of the stumps. Come on, England!

C) Come on! Let's get another free drink in the sponsor's marquee

And what is a googly?

A) A deceptive spinning delivery by a leg-spin bowler

B) A ball aimed at the batsman's box

C) Vodka, Pimm's and Malibu and Red Bull

What is a beamer?

A) An illegal delivery that reaches the batsman around head height without bouncing

B) A fan who has spent all day out drinking in the sun

C) What's wrong with that? No, just joking. It's my car, obviously

What is a jaffa?

A) An exceptionally well bowled, practically unplayable delivery, usually delivered by a fast bowler

B) A biscuit

C) No, a cake. That's why I like this game, there's time to eat, there's lots of time to eat. And sleep

Why are England fans praying for rain?

A) Because they're philistines who care more about cheap victory and national grudges than watching a fine game

B) So Australia can't score many runs, the match is drawn and the Ashes come home at last.

Ing-ger-land!

C) Because at least it means they won't be disappointed

Who or what is Hawkeye?

A) A computer system for tracking the ball

B) The funny one in M*A*S*H.

C) A popular Scottish phrase that ends in "the noo"

What is a full toss?

A) A delivery that reaches the batsman on the full (without bouncing)

B) When the people in monkey suits, Star Wars masks and Flintstones skins throw their headgear in the air to celebrate

C) I'm not sure I know you well enough to answer that question

Last one then. When is a bye called?

A) When both the batsman and the wicketkeeper miss a legal delivery, resulting in an extra run to the batsman

B) When Ponting flails about and gets caught. Love it!

C) When it's time to go. Taxi!

How did you do?

Mostly As. Is that a copy of Wisden in your pocket or are you just pleased to see us all watching the game you love?

Mostly Bs. Well, at least it's light relief from watching the football.

Mostly Cs. Didn't we meet at Henley? Or was it the polo?

Cole Moreton with Steve Bloomfield and Jonathan Thompson

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