Rain at The Oval lifts England's hopes of a draw
Following days of endless sunshine and absorbing cricket, the fourth day of the final npower Test match was lost to the rain clouds today to reduce Australia's chances of victory and boost England's hopes for a draw.
The forecasters predicted more sun but less than two hours' play was possible before bad light intervened at the AMP Oval. Light rain started to fall and as the afternoon progressed, it became heavier, the puddles deeper and the crowd thinner. Play was finally called at 4.40pm when the outfield was deemed too saturated for any further action.
Australian captain Steve Waugh enforced the follow on after dismissing England for 432 which was tantalisingly close to the required target and when Mark Butcher and Marcus Trescothick were offered the light, they were still 169 runs shy of Australia's first innings total.
They had also lost the services of their opening batsman Mike Atherton, who was caught behind off Glenn McGrath's bowling for nine and, judging by Atherton's gestures as he walked off the field, England have lost them for good.
Atherton has spent months keeping everyone guessing over the timing of his retirement. The deals concluded with his new employers in the media are said to have flexible starting dates, giving him the option of starting now, or next year. But as he walked towards the pavilion, he raised his bat in what could have been taken as a farewell gesture to the crowd.
And when he climbed the steps to the dressing room, there were his long time England colleagues Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart waiting with warm embraces. But still no announcement from the 33-year-old Lancastrian who seems determined to exit the game without fuss or fanfare.
Twenty minutes into the day's play, McGrath brought Mark Ramprakash's epic innings to a close, after he had added nine runs to his overnight total. It had been a magnificent performance, raising England's hopes of saving the match but when he left, the job was still not quite complete, England needing another 18 runs to make Australia bat again.
He was out to a rash shot, a wild slug outside the off-stump which sent the ball flying to wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist, and responsibility fell to Darren Gough, who had resumed on 18, and new batsman Phil Tufnell.
Gough survived a rare error from Steve Waugh when he was dropped at second slip but after a couple of robustly-struck shots from Tufnell, the innings came to a close. Gough was stumped by Gilchrist for 24, giving the Australian keeper his 100th Test dismissal, a remarkable achievement given that he has played only 22 Tests.
It also gave Shane Warne his seventh wicket, allowing him to claim his best figures against England in this country with 7-165 after another captivating display of leg spin bowling in what is expected to be his last Test appearance here.
The dismissal left England trailing by 209 runs and by the close that had been reduced by 40 runs, with Trescothick not out 20 and Butcher looking for another big moment, this time on his home ground, with a start of 11 runs.