ENGLAND have retained the Ashes after rain ensured the third Investec Test against Australia ended in a draw at Emirates Old Trafford.
Alastair Cook became an Ashes-winning captain for the first time in anti-climactic circumstances after the Manchester weather spared his side a final-day battle to avoid a defeat that would have kept the series alive.
Australia had been fed a glimmer of hope when play started at 11:30am – against all forecasted predictions – and they reduced a nervy England to 37 for three in 20.3 overs.
But the expected rain eventually settled in before umpires Marais Erasmus and Tony Hill officially abandoned the match at 4:39pm to secure England, 2-0 ahead in the five-Test series, a third successive Ashes success for the first time since 1981.
England had to survive a brief scare, though, after their top order was dismissed in the 90 minutes of play before lunch.
Cook was trapped lbw without scoring before Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen followed him back to the pavilion after offering catches to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.
The weather then started to close in, and after just three balls of the afternoon session, the rain forced the players off for good at 2pm.
For Australia, the draw, which ended a run of six Test defeats, meant their earliest concession of the Ashes in a series since 1929.
England coach Andy Flower said: “I think the day for everyone was a bit of an anti-climax. It was a hard-fought Test match with two good teams going at each other, and a really excellent Test match pitch which deteriorated as the match went on, and the ground staff have to be complimented on that.
“I think some of the things we saw through the game, it was great for the spectators. It was a great four days of Test cricket, though it did peter out a bit.”
Like Cook, Flower credited England’s response in the first innings with saving the game.
“I thought what really ensured our draw in this Test was the fight we showed in the first innings, to bat for 140 overs on a pitch already showing wear was tremendous.”
Flower said Graham Onions and Chris Tremlett had both been added to the squad for the next Test, with England’s bowling options to be reviewed after some gruelling days.
But whatever changes are made, he expects the series to continue in the fashion in which it started.
“I think our team has played some excellent cricket,” he said. “The Trent Bridge Test was sensational for everyone watching, both sides put up a great show and we dominated that second Test. We’ve been slightly behind in this one so it’s been a really interesting series for everyone to watch.”
Australia captain Michael Clarke was named man of the match after making 187 in the first innings, but he would have gladly swapped his magnum of champagne for a few hours of sunshine this afternoon.
“I don’t want to take anything away from England, they played good cricket and deserved to be 2-0 up,” he said. “That’s the price you pay if you go 2-0 down in England, there’s always a chance of rain. But I’m proud of the way we’ve fought in this Test.”
Asked about his century, Clarke added: “It’s always nice to make runs, and every hundred for Australia is something you’re proud of, but the result makes it irrelevant. I’d rather make a duck and have won the Test.”
There is now a very brief respite until the series moves north to Durham for the start of the fourth Test on Friday, where Cook is targeting a series win.
“After three Test matches I would have snapped you hand off to be in this position,” he said. “It’s a really nice feeling and we’ll enjoy tonight and then go back to Durham to work really hard.”