ASHES: A gloomy forecast for the visitors

As is always expected in Manchester, the rain dictated the play. Alastair Cooke slowed down the game to his favour and Michael Clarke was robbed of two critical hours.

Old Trafford, Manchester, England — Everyone knows it always rains in Manchester, especially during an Old Trafford Test. It started to fall on the fourth day at 5pm, but the players had already gone 30 minutes earlier when the umpires decided the light was too poor. Michael Clarke’s strategy was developing nicely at the time. Australia were 172 for 7, but the wickets did not matter. The overall lead was 331, which is approximately what Clarke was hoping for. The idea was to give the team enough time to bowl England out a second time. He was robbed of two hours of cricket when play was abandoned at 5.38pm, and the forecast for the fifth day on Monday promises to take away even more.

Australia’s dominance was achieved in spite of tactical manoeuvres by England’s captain Alastair Cook to slow down play and speed up the decision about the light. Malcolm Knox’s recent book about Test cricket late in the 19th century was titled “Never a Gentleman’s Game”. England’s behaviour yesterday confirmed that it still isn’t.  

The clouds had been high in the sky when play began; but they became lower and darker when Australia commenced their second innings 30 minutes before lunch. Shortly after lunch the floodlights were switched on, but the light diminished slowly through the afternoon. A short, light shower meant tea was taken early, but no time was lost then.

England’s fielders began to question the umpires about the quality of the light soon after play restarted at 4pm. Decisions about bad light now rest solely with the umpires, but players talk to them and they talk back. Tony Hill said later that he was having difficulty seeing the ball from square leg, and his colleague Marais Erasmus asked Cook whether he intended to bowl Graeme Swann. This a coded message which means ‘the light is bad and we can continue playing only if you keep bowling the spinner’.   

Cook responded by instantly giving the ball to one of his fast bowlers, Stuart Broad; that was the pretext for the stoppage of play. England’s objective was to cut into the time available for Australia to bowl them out, and they had done so. In other sports, this might be described as ungentlemanly conduct. Cook is not unique, of course; other cricket captains would probably argue that if you can get away with it, you’d be daft not to do it. The ruthless quality of cricket’s professionalism never ceases to surprise people who do not follow the game closely.

But the hasty exit from the field of play was part of a pattern that had been established on it. The length of the conversations between Cook and his bowlers, and the regularity with which field placings were altered, made it clear that England were determined to slow the game down. They did so despite the fact that 15 of the 36 overs in Australia’s second innings were bowled by England spinner. This normally speeds up the over-rate; Swann slowed it down.

England bowled 12.2 overs an hour in the second innings as opposed to 13.5 in Australia’s first (Australia managed 14). England had performed two indecent acts of gamesmanship. This is a pity because this absorbing Test has been great sporting drama. The stakes are high; Australia must win to prevent England retaining the Ashes. If they declare overnight, Australia would have 98 overs in which the bowl England out. That would be hard enough; much more inclement weather will end the drama in anti-climax – as a draw.

Moreover, England have been very reluctant to concede defeat. Although it appears that Michael Clarke did not intend to enforce it, they soon scored the 33 runs needed to avoid the follow-on, Broad attacked splendidly, and soon reached 32 before giving a catch to the keeper (He walked immediately this time, unlike his refusal to do so at Trent Bridge). Matt Prior defended manfully for 140 minutes with the intention of eating into the time Australia wanted to bowl at England again.

The last three wickets added 73 runs in 19.3 overs. A score of 368 meant Australia’s lead was 159. Clarke’s intention was to take it well beyond 300 quickly enough to get at England’s batsmen before the close of play. He moved David Warner up the order to open with Chris Rogers. Rogers was soon out, but Warner was cutting and pulling to the boundary; he survived a review which made Broad so cross that he conceded 12 runs off his next over; and he had made 41 when he pulled a ball from Tim Bresnan to Joe Root on the mid-wicket boundary.

That was the highest score in Australia’s second innings. Usman Khawaja batted fluently for 24 before Swann bowled him round his legs. Shane Watson slashed an upper cut to third man which went like a guided missile in Pietersen’s hands. Clarke put himself down the order to No. 5 and kept the runs coming as his partners fell in quick succession. He was 30 not out when the light got bad and the rains came.

Although the wicket remains good, Australia’s lead of 331 means that in a full day’s cricket, Australia would be favourites, but England would retain a chance of winning against the odds. What is most in doubt, however, is a full day’s cricket.