England forced to grind as Australia chip away
England 247 for 4 (Bell 29*, Woakes 15*) trail Australia 492 for 9 dec by 245 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Capacity crowds have been drawn to the Investec Ashes all summer in anticipation of another high-octane series, but sometimes things do not work out that way. Instead, England are juddering to their final destination as if Australia have slipped petrol into their diesel engine.
When England are under pressure, they commit themselves zealously to pre-programmed, conservative, risk-free cricket. There will be a computer programme somewhere suggesting that the careworn approach they displayed on the third day of the Oval Test has improved their victory chances by 5.62% and their chances of avoiding defeat by rather more.
Their give-'em-nothing approach probably possessed unabashed cricketing logic and provided further proof of their tough mental state. They were 3-0 up in the series and were determined not to grant Australia a consolation victory with the return series already looming. Faster scoring, according to Joe Root, young in years but old in brain, was "not viable". The result was drab fare for all but the most obsessive Test cricket watcher.
Excited England pre-match talk of an unprecedented 4-0 Ashes victory was quietened on the first day by a lost toss and Shane Watson's domineering century for Australia. What has followed has been prosaic in the extreme: attritional batting, laggardly attitudes which might usefully waste a bit of time along the way, and a general tedium as England have made grim, and probably successful, progress towards passing the follow-on figure of 293.
They scored at only 2.19 runs per over on the third day, making 215 in 98 overs, while losing only three wickets on a ponderous but reliable Oval surface, one on which Australia proceeded at 3.81 runs per over while making 492. But Australia had to make the running and that meant taking wickets. They failed in their prime task.
Australia's attack was disciplined but - as England emphasised, hour after long hour - resistible: Nathan Lyon, barely seen until mid-afternoon, got the occasional ball to turn and bounce sharply and, if Ryan Harris ever opts for body art, a huge bull nose ring would be perfect; for his unyielding approach alone, he deserves to be named as Australia's man of the series. But England's obduracy triumphed and it arose not from conditions but largely from their choice to put an unwillingness to yield above loftier ambitions.
Perhaps the presence of a debutant allrounder, Chris Woakes, at No. 6, was enough to curb England's ambitions. As it was, Woakes, although only 15 not out at the close, launched his Test career with a ringing square drive against Mitchell Starc and generally looked more comfortable than most. If he has a Test future it may be as a batting allrounder.
Even the umpires caught the slow rhythms. Aleem Dar thought for an age before giving out Jonathan Trott to Australia's first delivery with the second new ball, ten minutes before tea. Trott, who had reached 40 with great deliberation, while bearing the demeanour of a cabinet minister who had just approached the despatch box to announce the banning of Fun, reviewed Starc's lbw decision but the call was a good one. Australia had stifled his leg-side strength to good effect.
Alastair Cook's unproductive Ashes continued when he became the only England batsman to fall on the third morning. Cook's exceptional record - 766 runs in seven innings - was the bedrock of England's first series win in Australia for 24 years three years ago, and he has another series victory to bring contentment here, but he has found little personal glory in his first home series as an Ashes captain.
When Harris enticed him to push woodenly at a wide one, and offer a simple catch to the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, it left him with 243 runs at an average of 27 and the prospect of one more innings, at best, to remedy matters.
As for Haddin, he is only two dismissals short of Rod Marsh's all-time record of 28 dismissals in a Test series, achieved against England in 1982-83, which is not the sort of statistic you expect to find when a side is 3-0 down.
Cook has three half-centuries in the series, but his batting for the most part has been characterised by stilted defence. His 28 came from 88 balls, with only 11 added from his overnight total, his pleasure drawn from a solitary square drive against Harris and the only half-century stand that his new opening alliance with Root has brought all summer.
He also survived an Australia review, on 25, when Harris exposed his summer-long tendency to fall too far over to the off side. But it is doubtful whether he was overly concerned. Predictably, replays showed the ball pitching well outside leg stump, continuing the trend in a series in which the DRS success rate of both sides now lies under 25%.
Root did at least find some benefit. Remove his herculean 180 in the second Test at Lord's and all he had to show for his first series as an opener was six scores under 20, but he survived an awkward examination from Starc in particular and by the time he unpacked his first third-man glide of the morning he looked in better order. His half-century was neatly packed away by lunch.
James Faulkner, like Woakes, is a one-day allrounder on Test debut, and his introduction after lunch encouraged Root's most enterprising moments as he twice preyed on width to drive to the boundary. But expectations that Root could inject some life into the day were dashed by Lyon, who had him caught at short fine-leg from a top-edged sweep.
Kevin Pietersen was awarded a miniature silver bat at lunchtime as recognition of becoming England's highest runscorer in international cricket, but it brought no air of celebration. His fifty took three hours, his second slowest in Tests for England, and came up with a bottom-edged pull against Faulkner as he was through a pull shot far too early. Ironic cheers rang out from a crowd which had soaked up its punishment patiently.
He has rarely made such ugly runs and did not make another run after his half-century, poking a full-length ball from Starc to first slip. There had not been a strut in sight. There was, though, a prolonged exchange with Michael Clarke after he was sledged for the way he apparently mothers Ian Bell through an innings when they are together at the crease.
Pietersen had most difficulties of all against Lyon, who found turn from around the wicket and enough harum-scarum moments against bat and pad to keep the short leg, Steve Smith, in perpetual hope that a deflection might fall within his range. His impatience was apparent when he gambled on a risky single to mid-on and was spared by David Warner's inaccurate shy. Lyon caused occasional alarms, but he could not cause mayhem.
Were it not for forecasts of heavy rain, spinners could be expected to have a sizeable say on the last two days. Instead, with storms forecast for Saturday, there was a sense of a series meandering to a climax, a series which has sporadically brought great entertainment, but which has been of inconsistent quality.
Roy Hodgson, the England football manager, was in the crowd and, in his terminology, he must have felt that the third day remained goalless, with only a couple of shots on target.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo