ENGLAND will begin the final day of the third Investec Test at Emirates Old Trafford with odds stacked in their favour to retain the Ashes as a rain-affected stalemate looms.
A grim forecast today following another dash of controversy yesterday, this time via the umpires’ light meters rather than the decision review system – leaves Australia with unfeasible time constraints in which to bowl their hosts out.
Only by bowling out England – to bring the series back to 2-1 with two Tests to play – can Australia keep the destination of the urn in doubt.
Australia have done much to help themselves in Manchester – but after defeats at Trent Bridge and Lord’s they nonetheless find themselves backed into a corner.
They were unable to see off England’s last three wickets short of a follow-on target of 328 yesterday morning, but did bowl their hosts out for 368.
Then they set about augmenting a lead of 159 but were stopped in their tracks at 172 for seven when umpires Tony Hill and Marais Erasmus took the players off for bad light.
A break in play for that reason has become a highly-infrequent occurrence in the modern game – with floodlights universally operational, as they were here – and Australia captain Michael Clarke made his frustration clear before he and eighth-wicket partner Ryan Harris reluctantly vacated the crease.
Long-predicted rain swept in half-an-hour later. But in a situation where Australia have no time to lose, the 32 minutes chalked off for light was tough to take.
There could yet be further repercussions too – because, even if rain relents tomorrow, the meter reading by which play has already been suspended will be a benchmark for any further resumption or interruption.
Clarke resisted the temptation of an early declaration. After 32 overs were wiped out, though, he will have little choice but to close Australia’s innings overnight and set England 332 runs to win – an intriguing prospect, were it not for that ominous forecast.
England eliminated Australia’s presumed plan A this morning when they raced past the follow-on target in only 25 minutes. Matt Prior and Stuart Broad made light of the task with a rush of boundaries, the latter completing the job with the second of three fours in one over from Harris.
Quick wickets followed the quick runs, however. Broad pushed forward and edged Nathan Lyon behind, giving the off-spinner his only success.
Graeme Swann hit a straight six off Lyon before getting an inside-edge behind to give Peter Siddle (four for 63) his third wicket and Brad Haddin his fifth catch.
Prior was eventually last out, trying to farm a single to leg off Siddle but succeeding only in looping a simple catch into the off side to end a tenth-wicket stand with James Anderson which used up eight overs.
Australia opener Chris Rogers half-steered an early catch to slip off Broad, before David Warner and Usman Khawaja shared a 51-run stand in the next 13 overs.
Warner survived on 19 when England invoked DRS but failed to overturn Hill’s not-out caught-behind verdict. Warner, pushed up to open the innings in circumstances playing to his strengths, fulfilled his brief until he failed to control a pull at Tim Bresnan.
He was caught by a tumbling Joe Root at deep square-leg.
Swann then turned one enough from round the wicket to have Usman Khawaja bowled behind his legs, and Shane Watson haplessly picked out deep third-man with an upper-cut at Bresnan.
Smith was run-out, in the cause, after a mix-up with Clarke – and then after tea, Anderson broke his duck on his home ground with two belated wickets when Haddin mistimed a big hit and then Mitchell Starc poked a low full-toss to cover.
Those were mere minor setbacks to the Australia cause, unlike the umpires’ intervention shortly afterwards.