Rain keeps England’s Ashes hopes in the balance
SUMMARY: Australia 317 all out from 90.2 overs (Mitchell Marsh 51, Marnus Labuschagne 51, Travis Head 48; Chris Woakes 5-62) and 214-5 from 71 overs (Marnus Labuschagne 111; Mark Wood 3-27) vs England 592 all out from 107.4 overs (Zak Crawley 189, Jonny Bairstow 99*, Joe Root 84, Harry Brook 61, Moeen Ali 54, Ben Stokes 51; Josh Hazlewood 5-126)
England dodged the rain to take the vital wicket of Marnus Labuschagne, but their Ashes hopes remain in the balance going into the final day of the fourth Test against Australia.
On a fourth day that could have been entirely lost to rain, a period of dry weather allowed 30 overs of play from 14:45 BST at Old Trafford.
England were frustrated for a long period by Labuschagne, who made only his second overseas Test hundred and shared a stubborn partnership of 103 with Mitchell Marsh.
As the light faded, England were ordered to bowl spin and Joe Root’s off-breaks provided an unlikely source of inspiration.
He had Labuschagne caught behind by juggling wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow for 111 and almost had Marsh held at short leg.
Rain arrived at the scheduled tea break of 17:00h, preventing any further action and leaving Australia on 214-5, still 61 short of making England bat again. Marsh has 31 and Cameron Green three.
With more bad weather forecast for Sunday, England are left hoping for enough time to force the win that would level the series at 2-2 and turn the fifth Test at The Oval into a decider.
Though victory is now almost out of the question for Australia, a draw would be enough for them to retain the urn.
England battle weather to keep Ashes alive
This series has produced three thrilling Tests, with the drama in the fourth now coming through England’s battle with the weather. It would be a huge anti-climax if the rain has a decisive say in the destination of the Ashes urn.
England were fortunate to get any play on Saturday. Overnight rain persisted into the morning and early afternoon, but the ground was readied at a remarkable speed. The empty stands filled rapidly as news of a start filtered through.
Though the overheads were ideal and the crowd expectant, England were blocked by an unresponsive surface – there was no sign of the uneven bounce from earlier in the match – and the determination of Labuschagne and Marsh.
The reverse swing of Friday evening also disappeared as the ball became wet. When England persuaded the umpires to change it and looked to bring Mark Wood into the attack, they were told the light was not fit enough for pace. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Root proved to be the most threatening bowler.
England will return on Sunday wishing for the weather to be kind. There is the possibility of 98 overs of play and second new ball available nine overs into the day.
For Australia, they will not only be looking to repel England, but also build a lead to make the hosts’ route to victory longer. Their inclusion of both Marsh and Green in this Test, extending the batting line-up, was done partly with this scenario in mind.
Labuschagne delivers when Australia need it most
This has been a difficult series for Labuschagne. Beginning ranked as the world’s number one Test batter, he had not managed a half-century before this match.
He hinted at a return to form with 51 in the first innings and then delivered what could yet prove to be an Ashes-saving hundred.
With Australia 113-4 overnight, Labuschagne began on 44 and Marsh one. Though Labuschagne took a painful blow on the finger from a Wood bouncer, he was largely untroubled by England’s short-ball plan.
Marsh, usually so aggressive, was a calm foil. He has struck only four fours in a 107-ball stay and two of those came in successive deliveries from Chris Woakes, who spent time off the field suffering from stiffness.
When Root came on, Labuschagne lofted two sixes over long-on, but also flashed an edge off an arm-ball past slip Zak Crawley when he was on 93.
He went to his 11th Test ton by pinching a single off Moeen Ali before making an error attempting to cut Root and was given out on review.
Root provides England inspiration
Given the stakes and urgency of the situation, this was a curiously flat performance from England’s seamers.
They got little movement from the ball or the pitch and chewed up precious time as they deliberated over field placings and tactics.
A bouncer plan achieved little other than knocking the ball out of shape, after which came the stroke of luck with Wood being denied the chance to bowl, resulting in the call to Moeen and Root.
While Moeen mixed some dangerous bounce with regular loose deliveries, Root constantly made things happen.
He was convinced on-field umpire Nitin Menon had made a mistake for the Labuschagne wicket, celebrating towards the Party Stand even before the review was complete. In the same over, an inside edge off Marsh went in and out of the fingers of bat-pad fielder Harry Brook.
Green survived a review off Moeen from the final ball before the tea break. England would have been happy to bowl more spin after the interval, only to be denied the opportunity. (BBC Sport)