Declare and be damned
"We always cop it here, I can't understand why it's not raining," said one expert on Old Trafford weather as he peered over his spectacles at three weather websites running simultaneously, all of them showing banks of cloud doing roughly the same things in roughly the same direction, only in different colours. He then insisted it would pour down on the final day. But if he was flummoxed, how on earth could Australia judge what constituted a decent declaration?
Nothing messes with a cricketer's mind more than trying to gauge a declaration when there is a forecast of rain. Declarations have become much more conservative than they once were - sides bat deeper, pitches generally hold together longer and these days captains get stung too often - and judging a declaration when there is no clear idea how many overs are left in the game is no job for weak men: especially when the Ashes are at stake.
Players generally respond by ignoring the weather forecast completely, parrot "You can only control the controllables" and "You have to keep focus on the job in hand", and then shrug at their ill luck when the rain predictably arrives. You can't be too critical because even the ancient Greeks needed more weather gods than England have backroom staff, but it is all a bit of a cop-out.
Australia, to their credit, approached their second innings as if they were prepared to be influenced, up to a point anyway, by forecasts that much of the final day will be washed out. If Australia would not gamble when they had to win the game to prevent England retaining the Ashes then the nation that tradition has it will gamble on two flies climbing up a wall would have abandoned its history.
But they did not dare do what the forecast insisted they should have done: play an innings of Twenty20, scramble a lead of 300 and hope to bowl throughout the final session. Instead they promoted David Warner to open the innings as a show of intent. To reach 172 for 7 at nearly five runs an over carried a general recognition that time was against them, but it hardly offered a solution.
There were even conspiracy theories around that the Met Office was fiddling the weather forecast just to persuade Australia to declare too early and hand England victory. That would certainly take match-fixing to a whole new level.
It was a strange innings, as if Australia were aware of the necessity but could not quite come to terms with it. According to Warner, instructions did not go much further than play positively and see how it goes. There again, that is all you need to tell Warner. They probably waited until he took guard before they got the pie charts out.
If Warner, suitably, was promoted to opener, there was little advantage in Usman Khawaja remaining at No. 3. He was bowled around his legs by Graeme Swann, flicking weakly when he could have been forgiven for falling to a full-blooded mow; Shane Watson's appearance down at No. 4 was sadly understated, as if the task had made him a little mournful; and Steven Smith's enthusiasm for a dashed second run brought about his run-out as he found that his captain, Michael Clarke, was content to amble for a single.
England's mood in the field was even stranger. They were not averse to gamesmanship. They lacked intensity, as if they could not quite settle to a Test that was no longer programmed to accepted rhythms but which had suddenly turned a little unpredictable. The mood seemed more light-hearted than usual, as if they were displaying a confidence that Australia's scurrying was not about to put them in any real danger of defeat, but underneath felt uncomfortable at a game that was no longer quantifiable.
Dressing rooms have so much statistical data at their fingertips these days but introducing weather forecasts into the equation is regarded as essentially unprofessional. They are regarded basically as false data.
A computer programme knows what percentage of Watson's dismissals have been lbw, but the Met Office cannot guarantee the rain. The danger for Australia was that if they slogged for 20 overs in anticipation of bad weather which never arrived, and then lost the match, they would have looked altogether too clever by half. You would struggle to find a professional cricketer, past or present, who would advocate such a move.
But cricket captains have to try to read pitches so why not read weather forecasts? F1 teams can spend forever analysing when to switch to wet weather tyres and often profit as a result. A cricket team which seeks to play naturally, while blocking out a weather forecast, even if that forecast is only 80% reliable, is not playing the odds. But when it rains, professionals can just observe back-to-back Ashes series and routinely retreat into talk of "momentum" and "taking the positives".
The one area where it can be brazenly stated that the media is better qualified than players and coaches to manage the game is when a weather forecast is iffy. It is a fair bet that within seconds of the first internet weather forecast being available that a crowd of cricket writers were gathered around it, shouting: "It's raining in Oswestry" and "We'll be back on by four".
Debates sound about whether itschuckingitdown.com is more reliable than rainstoppedplay.co.uk. The efficacy of rival cloud graphics is routinely analysed. People have opinions on whether purple is a better colour for heavy rain than green. The only good thing about journalists talking about the weather in cricket press boxes is it stops them talking about golf.
When it comes to the weather, it has to be said it is the media, not the players, that knows its altocumulus from its altostratus. The players might well maintain the belief that this Test is not yet over. But the journalists have already awarded the Ashes to England.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo