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Cricket : Australia retains Ashes as rain ruins England’s hopes of victory in 4th test

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Australia retained the Ashes after rain prevented any play on the final day of the fourth test against England at Old Trafford on Sunday after weeks of blockbuster entertainment in the closest and most exciting Ashes contest since 2005.

Australia has an insurmountable 2-1 lead after the draw with one test left. England needed to win the five-match series to take the urn off holder Australia.

A shootout for glory in the fifth test at the Oval starting Thursday was on the cards if there had been enough time for England to convert its dominance in Manchester with Australia 214-5 in its second innings and 61 runs behind the hosts.

The fifth-day washout handed the urn to Australia as the most pessimistic forecasts came to pass and relentless rain meant the players never made it to the middle in a miserable weekend for England. Only 30 overs had been possible on Saturday.

England captain Ben Stokes was disappointed but said his team’s thrill-a-minute style has already secured a place in the game’s folklore.

“It’s a tough one to take, a tough pill to swallow. We were completely and utterly dominant throughout the hours of play we had, but the weather didn’t help us and we can’t change that,” Stokes said. “If this game went without rain we probably would have been favorites to be sat here at 2-2 and I think that would have elevated everything that this series has already done for test cricket.

“But I think what we’ve managed to do has already done wonders for cricket in England. I said in the dressing room that the reward for your work isn’t what you get, it’s what you become. And I think what we’ve managed to become is a team that people will remember.”

England arrived Sunday needing five wickets to get over the line but left without a ball being bowled.

England has all but eliminated the concept of the draw since Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum ushered in the fast-scoring Bazball era more than a year ago, but for the first time in 17 games at the helm conditions finally left them with no cards to play.

Instead, dreams of a stirring comeback to beat its rivals for the first time since 2015 were swept away.

The rain fell all afternoon, with several puddles forming on the outfield, before any hope of play was abandoned at 5:24 p.m. (1624 GMT) local time.

Australia was more than happy to finish the job in the pavilion rather than out on the pitch, but any post-match celebrations may be slightly muted after this narrow escape.

There is still plenty to play for, with Australia bidding to claim its first outright win on English soil in 22 years while their opponents are seeking to level the series at 2-2 and preserve an undefeated streak under Stokes’ leadership.

Pat Cummins, who has demanded a better showing from his side in London, wants to go one better than 2019 when Australia lost at the Oval to draw 2-2.

“It’s been a bit of a strange one,” the Australia captain reflected. “As a group, we’re proud we’ve retained the Ashes but it’s off the back of not our greatest week.

“It’s a pretty similar group to 2019 when we retained it and we all came away feeling OK but like there was a little bit we just missed what we’d come over to achieve. In some regards, whatever happened here wouldn’t really change how we look at next week, we want to win it so we make sure we win it outright.”

England had made all the running at Old Trafford, piling up a 275-run first-innings advantage and taking five of the 10 wickets it needed to finish the job before the skies turned against them.

Five of the last six sessions were lost without a ball bowled.

The momentum of the series had swung when Stokes embarked on a six-hitting rampage in the fourth innings of the second test at Lord’s, apparently sparked into life by Alex Carey’s controversial stumping of Jonny Bairstow, and although his magnificent century was not enough to save that game, it set things on a new path.

England won the third test at Headingley in relatively comfortable fashion — the first of three must-win games — and spent the first three days on the other side of the Pennines establishing an even more dominant position at Old Trafford.

Zak Crawley’s outrageous 189 and an unbeaten 99 from Bairstow saw them pile up 592, England’s highest total against Australia in a dozen years, and a three-wicket blast from Mark Wood tightened the hosts’ grip on the third evening as Australia stumbled to 113-4.

That was as good as it got for England, with Labuschagne making 111 and Mitch Marsh batting through what became the final session of the match to keep Australian heads above water.

“As much as I would love to be an Ashes-winning captain, I want this team to be a legacy team,” Stokes said. “Regardless of how the series ends up, people will always talk about us.”