Bad light then rain hits Australia's chances
Australia 527 for 7 dec and 172 for 7 (Clarke 30*, Harris 0*) lead England 368 (Pietersen 113, Cook 62, Bell 60, Siddle 4-63, Starc 3-76) by 331 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Australia's captain Michael Clarke was far from alone in fuming as the umpires made the unilateral decision to take the teams off for bad light with the tourists leading by 331 runs on the fourth evening of the Old Trafford Test. To widespread incredulity around the ground and the world, Tony Hill and Marais Erasmus judged conditions to be unsafe for play, maintaining the officials' unedifyingly scene-stealing role in this series.
Clarke's disgust was as clear as the barely concealed relief of his opposite number Alastair Cook, for England need only a draw in Manchester to retain the Ashes. Rain arrived subsequently to end the day, but the umpires' enthusiasm to get the combatants off the ground cost 30 minutes of possible play, a figure that may prove critical should the skies clear enough on the final day to allow a full allotment of overs.
Speaking to the host broadcasters, Hill and Erasmus stated that they had deemed conditions unsafe, even though Australia had been motoring along at close to six runs per over. They also revealed they had asked Cook to bowl spin, a request England's captain understandably refused given the series scenario. Clarke remonstrated at length when asked to depart, but under current ICC regulations had no say in the matter.
No side has chased more than 294 to win in the fourth innings at the ground, but Clarke appeared to be pushing towards a lead of around 350 with more than 30 overs still scheduled to be bowled on the fourth evening. The hosts had reduced Australia's chances of forcing the victory they need to keep the series alive with doughty lower order batting on the fourth morning, but were then conspicuous in their time-wasting tactics in the field.
Matt Prior and Stuart Broad put together a critical stand of 58 that averted the follow-on, before the last man James Anderson aided England's wicketkeeper in another pesky union that pared back the tourists' first innings advantage to 159. From there England played the situation with pragmatism but little imagination, letting their over rate sag and then being happy when Hill and Erasmus made a ruling that left spectators almost as nonplussed as Clarke himself.
A series of cameos by Chris Rogers, David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson and Steve Smith had kept Australia's runs ticking over, though a wicket fell every time they threatened to go from a canter to a charge. Watson's absence at the top of the order reflected his lack of batting confidence in the first innings, but also allowed Warner the chance to make a decent contribution to the match after his brief and less than illustrious visit to the middle on the second day.
Rogers appeared fluent again but sacrificed his wicket to an attempted ODI dab towards third man, resulting only in an edge off Broad, well held by Prior. Warner played with good sense after lunch, finding gaps on the offside and behind square leg, though England felt they had him snicking a Broad bouncer behind. A referral was used, but amid scant evidence to overturn the original decision Warner stayed, leading to a petulant reaction by Cook's men.
Eventually Warner would fall, hooking into the hands of his Birmingham Walkabout target Joe Root at deep square leg. Khawaja played neatly until being bowled around his legs by a Swann delivery that drifted and spun, Watson made his usual start before upper cutting to third man, and Smith unfurled a pair of handsome lofted straight drives before falling victim to a run out as Clarke forgot to run the first one hard.
Broad and Prior resumed in the morning with a simple goal - avoid the follow-on and then let a bleak weather forecast conspire with them to thwart Australia. Clarke opened up with a weary-looking Ryan Harris, his usual vim sapped by the previous day. Prior and Broad seemed wise to this and attacked, while at the other end Broad kept Nathan Lyon out.
Runs accrued quickly, to a combination of decent shots and fortunate edges, the vacant third slip region getting particular attention. Australia's lead was quickly diminished, and with a slashing Broad drive off Harris the follow-on was saved. Now sensing his primary task had been achieved, Broad had no qualms about turning on his heels to the pavilion after Lyon procured the thinnest of edges through to Brad Haddin.
Prior continued to attack and was dropped at shortish midwicket by a lunging Smith from Lyon. Graeme Swann did not last long, also walking after doing well to inside edge a searing delivery in Siddle's first over of the morning, but Prior and Anderson then did their best to prolong England's innings and thus reduce the time available for Australia.
This resulted in some curious shot choices and equally odd field settings, the crowd growing restless as Prior farmed the strike and Anderson looked safe enough against the few deliveries he did have to face. Drinks arrived after 67 runs had been added for the loss of two wickets - a ledger most favourable to England.
Prior did not last too much longer, skying Siddle to hand him a deserved fourth wicket. From there Cook's team would take on a decidedly defensive if not outright cynical posture, until Hill and Erasmus joined them in reducing the chances of an outright result.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here