ow long did the hope last? By generous estimate, about 60 seconds. That is all the weather gods allowed between the sole announcement of a confirmed start time pending no further rain here on the final day of the Fourth Test and the return of that exact spectre to the feast.
Jonny Bairstow, by then going through his keeping drills on the practice wicket, ploughed on, the Old Trafford ground staff hovering nervously with the covers like a restaurant waiter wary of interrupting a heavy conversation with the offer of dessert. Soon, though, even the stubbornest of cricketers had to concede defeat.
And so, Australia have retained the Ashes, ultimately their reward for a clinical performance at Edgbaston, a more complete one at Lord’s and, by proxy of the holders’ privilege, a crushing series victory at home eighteen months ago that makes a 2-1 lead unassailable with one game left to play. England’s charge, thrilling as it has been, ultimately came too late, the deficit halved at Headingley but even three days of accelerated near-perfection in Manchester not enough to beat the rain.
As endings go, this feels about as unsatisfactory as they come, the prospect of an Ashes decider at the Oval to settle a series for the ages wiped out by elements beyond human control. That, of course, is the nature of the beast: Test matches have been decided by weather before, plenty to England’s benefit, and will for as long as the format is being played. Still, it is perfectly reasonable to accept all that and feel, whatever your cricketing persuasion, more than a little short-changed.
True, this is not actually the end at all, the fifth chapter still to write, but it will be impossible now not to view whatever happens at the Oval next week through the prism of what didn’t here.
Pat Cummins, despite enduring probably his most difficult Test as captain, takes his side back to London with the urn secure and a place in legend beckoning. Ben Stokes must rally his sodden troops for the task of levelling the series and denying Australia a first win on English soil since 2001.
Needing six wickets and with a 161-run cushion to play with, the 30 overs managed between twin downpours on Saturday were more than England had bargained for, the dislodging of centurion Marnus Labuschagne enough to keep the push for victory moving, for all it was slowed at last by Australia’s resolve.
Back today still needing five with their lead shrunk by 100 runs, however, the outlook for Stokes’s side was always bleak, the outfield drenched overnight and promising a delayed start even before the heavens opened once more. Only in that minute of possibility just after midday were surface and skies aligned in making a resumption any sort of chance.
This is not entirely a hard luck story, although certainly it is a desperate one. Had even a decent chunk of play been possible, there are no guarantees as to how quickly England would have run through the second half of what is a deep batting lineup, nor whether Australia would have scored swiftly enough to force the home side to bat again. With the new ball nine overs away and an XI built to chase, though, English confidence would have been justifiably high.
Equally, while Australia’s escape is hugely fortuitous, it is not entirely of external making, the session survived on Saturday by Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh and, briefly, Cameron Green long enough for a lesser team to have crumbled, particularly having been so pulverised in the field.
How ironic it is that this game, notable for arguably the most glorious and vindictive exhibition of ‘Bazball’ yet, has now yielded the era’s first draw in 17 Tests, an outcome for which philosophy, leadership and rank-and-file each so explicitly hold no regard. Without England’s aggression, a match that has lost all but two hours of its final two days would, in all likelihood, be nowhere near a conclusion. Without Stokes’ team and their brand having so dominated the world champions across the first three, the sense of utter deflation would no doubt be less intense.
Here, it set in gradually, the final hardy souls camped under umbrellas in the giant Party Stand slowly filtering out as the puddles forming on the outfield swelled into seas, the last rites still, for some reason, yet to be read.
At 5:23pm, the obligatory hand-shake finally came, Australia in possession for another two-and-a-half years and England, despite their finest efforts here, out of time.