England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 3rd day September 10, 2005

England count on the heavens

The weather is on England's side, but will it be enough? © Getty Images

If England's vocal support is their twelfth man, as Michael Vaughan has often claimed his summer, then the weather is providing them with a 13th player at the most important time of the series. However, unlike the intervention of Gary Pratt at Trent Bridge and England's continued use of comfort breaks for their fast men, no amount of moaning from Ricky Ponting can do anything about the grey skies.

While Ponting curses the late British summer - although the rain at Old Trafford saved Australia from losing the third Test - England will be grateful for all the help they get from the elements. All of a sudden the ECB's scheduling of the Ashes, with this final Test at the tail-end of the season, could turn into a master stroke.

The truncated nature of the cricket - and the atmospheric conditions - should have favoured England. Reduced to a four-man attack, for the first time since they began their charge through the world-order on the tour of West Indies in 2004, the breaks in play allowed Vaughan to keep his main bowlers fresh. But how he must have been pining for Simon Jones, who could only watch forlornly from the dressing-room.

England, though, will point to a day when things didn't go their way in the field. While the luck in the skies rained over them, the luck on the pitch was conspicuous only by its absence. On a different day Billy Bowden would have given Langer lbw to Matthew Hoggard's first-ball yorker and later in proceedings he gave Ponting not out when he got a bat-and-pad inside edge to silly point.

With England failing to make breakthroughs in the traditional manner they could at least draw comfort from moral wickets in the shape of the four rain breaks which drew raucous cheers from the crowd. With time now such a factor in this match - 52.2 overs were lost today to add to yesterday's 37 - each stoppage in play was striking an important blow for England. A truer reflection on the stage of the match could have been given by the scoreboard reading "Australia 277 for 4 rain breaks."

But England have not reached a 2-1 lead in the series without playing the cricket of their lives and the crowd were given one glorious glimpse which encapsulated the passion they have shown all summer. No prizes for guessing who provided it. First of all Andrew Flintoff produced a whole-hearted sliding stop on the third-man boundary (while still finding time to banter with the crowd) then bounced out Ponting at the start of a fierce spell of quick bowling. He proceeded to rattle Damien Martyn - who escaped an undetected edge to Geraint Jones - and it will have been this spell which persuaded Hayden and Martyn to take the light with 5.2 overs remaining.

Hayden will argue that he had battled to his first century for 31 innings and did not want to throw it away in the dying stages of the day. It was a worthy effort of concentration and bloody-mindedness and the celebrations were, predictably, far more elaborate than Langer's, who barely acknowledged the dressing-room. But the long-term benefit to Australia is debatable. He is not the player of two years ago and it would be misguided of Australia if they lost a generation of opening batsmen - such as Mike Hussey - by prolonging Hayden's career.

Hayden's future is better debated elsewhere but Australia's early closure was a huge statement. It would be stretching a point to say England skipped into the dressing-room - they will be only too aware there is enough time and an improving weather forecast on Australia's side - but the way Flintoff was smiling after play shows that spirits have been brightened by the dank weather.

This England team have pulled off some amazing wins in the last two years but their only realistic ambition is to regain the Ashes with a draw. The Test-match draw is a strange beast and one here would translate into the biggest victory for English cricket in 20 years. They are stretching this series out to its nail-biting, bitter conclusion but are being assisted by an Australian side that has lost the swagger that set them apart from the chasing bunch. You could say that is like having a 14th man.

Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo