Old Trafford, Manchester, England — Before the Old Trafford Test, Michael Clarke admitted that people would laugh at the idea, but he insisted that Australia could still regain the Ashes. After the debacle at Lord’s, people did indeed laugh, and the Ashes have been forfeited again; on day five in Manchester, the fine, wind-blown Lancashire rain set in and the third Test had to be abandoned as a draw at 4.39pm. England has retained the Ashes three times in succession now. But Australia leaves Old Trafford knowing that they played well enough to contemplate victory in the remaining Tests at Chester-le-Street and The Oval.
There was a moment when they could contemplate victory in Manchester. At 12.46pm precisely, Kevin Pietersen played forward to a ball just outside off stump from Peter Siddle. He appeared to miss it, but Brad Haddin thought not, and the slips roared their appeal for caught behind. When umpire Alan Hill gave him out, Pietersen looked immensely aggrieved and called for a review. The third umpire could see no hot spot but believed that he heard the noise of contact between bat and ball. Out.
Pietersen said a few rude words about umpires and Australians and put on his most disgruntled face as he returned to the dressing room. England were 35 for 3. By mid-morning, the weather had turned unpredictably fine, and it looked as if the game might survive a full afternoon’s play - enough time to take seven more wickets. Alastair Cook had gone lbw, after a fruitless review; Jonathan Trott, his partner in many long second wicket stands, was caught by Haddin during a penetrating spell of seam bowling by Ryan Harris. With Pietersen gone too, and Australia’s bowlers working harder than at any time in the game, there was only one possible winner.
But the morning weather proved to be a fluke. While the sun shone on Old Trafford, weather maps suggested that it was an island of good weather surrounded on all sides by persistent rain. The rain closed in during lunch, relented for just long enough for three balls to be bowled at 2pm, and then the umbrellas went up again and stayed up until the game was called off.
The crowd was naturally thinner after four testing days cricket. Like the Australia team, they deserved better. They had been a vocal, shirt-sleaved crowd, quite unlike the audience at Lord’s. They delighted in choosing a player to mock, and David Warner, who had thrown a punch at England’s young Joe Root earlier in the summer, was their man. He was not only booed when he went to bat but every time he fielded the ball. He ought to take it as a compliment of a kind (the player who caught Warner on the boundary in Australia’s second innings was, of course, Joe Root).
For Australia, the bad news was that England retained the Ashes for the fourth time in the five series since 2005, the annus mirabilis of English cricket. But there was good news for Australia too. The team played like a cohesive unit, which was a bold response to the humiliation at Lord’s. Michael Clarke admitted after today’s abandonment that Australia’s batting in the first innings at Lord’s hurt him more than anything in his career.
In Manchester, Clarke did what a leader must and led by example; his 187 was an example and an inspiration. Good work by Chris Rogers, Steve Smith, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Starc guaranteed that the advantage created by Clarke was not thrown away. Australia’s best bowler was Peter Siddle and a mystery has been why Clarke always seemed to treat him like an afterthought.
He arrived in England with a reputation for imaginative captaincy, and has been criticised in English papers for delaying a declaration on Sunday. Apparently, he feared that a declaration at tea would have imposed too great a strain on his bowlers despite evidence that most are willing to fight through pain to achieve victory. When the game was over, he said he would have declared with 20 to 25 overs left in the day, thinking there would be enough time to bowl England out. The rain upset that strategy.
Clarke will be a more cheerful captain after a Test in which Australia were on top from the moment he won the toss. Clarke himself did not complain about the rain (you know it rains in England), or the eccentricities of the Decision Review System (he is for it; it’s consistent for both sides), or even of England’s gamesmanship in the field during Australia’s second innings (he doesn’t think it affected the result).
After this Test, Clarke believes that there is not now much of a gap between the two sides. He has not won the Ashes, but he does have a new goal: it’s to level the series in the next two games. It is not implausible; it probably would not even raise a laugh.
Stephen Fay is a former editor of Wisden and author of books about the Bank of England and the collapse of Barings.