England race for the line
Adelaide, South Australia
Tick-tock, tick-tock. Drip-drop, drip-drop.
After four days of roasting Australia's bowlers and batsmen, England's cricketers now face a nerve-butchering battle against two rather more nebulous opponents: the clock and the climate.
When Andrew Strauss declared with his side on 620-5 at 1012am Adelaide time, a lead of 375 on the board, his side had almost six sessions to take the 10 Australian wickets needed for victory. When a dramatic day drew to a close eight hours later, the equation was excruciatingly poised: six wickets from three sessions, 137 runs in hand.
The number they will be most concerned by? 28. That is the number of millimetres of rain Adelaide usually receives in the whole of December. It is also the amount of rain forecast to fall on the city on this particular Tuesday alone.
That England's players have spent much of the tour mucking about with a dance called The Sprinkler now seems horribly ironic. Perhaps Graeme Swann can get busy working on The Umbrella, or The Extremely Efficient Draining System.
It was not meant to be like this. English cricket fans are accustomed to praying for rain on the last day of Tests against Australia, not begging it to go away.
But beg they might have to. Midway through Monday afternoon, the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology issued the following apocalyptic warning for the Adelaide area.
"Severe thunderstorms are likely to produce very heavy rainfall, flash flooding, damaging winds with gusts in excess of 90 km/h and large hailstones."
The detail - "Move cars under cover. Secure loose items around your property. Stay indoors, away from windows" - painted an even bleaker picture. The only surprise was that there was no mention of plagues of ravenous locusts or four mysterious horsemen.
Then again, with the Midas mojo that Kevin Pietersen seems to have this week, he would probably quite fancy his chances against Pestilence, War and Famine, even back himself to give Death a decent fight.
Having begun the day by making his highest Test score, he ended it with the remarkable dismissal of Michael Clarke to give England fresh hope when it was starting to fade.
Cook leaps to complete the dismissal of Clarke as Pietersen watches on. Photo: AP
Clarke has looked a walking wicket in this series so far. His top score in his last six Test innings before Monday was 14 and he was very nearly caught off bat and pad to his very first ball. Yet, four hours later, he was still there, mowing and slashing with the wild abandon of a man on a mission to save both his own bacon and the team's hide.
He had survived chance after chance: given out caught at slip by Paul Collingwood off Graeme Swann, only to be reprieved on the referral; beaten all ends up by a Swann ripper that turned a mile from outside off to clear leg; advancing down the track to the next ball and miscuing just past Cook at short leg.
When Strauss brought Swann off after a marathon spell, with the light closing in and spectators trudging towards the exits, and threw the battered ball to Pietersen, it was not so much rolling the dice as tossing them up gently in an easy arc.
England's first-innings double-century maker might have begun his professional career as an off-spinner but after 67 Test matches his bowling figures read 3-569.
Still, if anyone can have faith in their wicket-taking ability with stats like that, it is Pietersen. He found bite from Doug Bollinger's footholds, watched the ball clip Clarke's bat and ricochet onto his thigh guard, with Cook diving backwards to take the catch.
Umpire Tony Hill initially turned the appeal down as Clarke started the long walk back to the pavilion. The batsman stopped, prompting a referral, which confirmed what England had hoped. Clarke later apologised on Twitter for not continuing his walk.
Whether his team's chances went with him will come down to the accuracy of those meteorological forecasts as much as his stranded partner Mike Hussey.
This England team have become extremely adept over the last 18 months at saving matches with sterling rearguard actions. In both Cardiff and Cape Town, they somehow hung on for draws with the last pair together at the crease and the vultures circling.
What they have not had so much recent practice in doing is the opposite - winkling out the opposition and forcing results when time is running out. When they did have the opportunity, against the West Indies right at the very start of Strauss's captaincy, they failed to apply the coup de grace in both Barbados and Antigua.
To be denied a series lead after dominating completely for so much of the match would add a particularly cruel and unwelcome entry to the long litany of English Ashes aches.
Did the declaration come too late? When Simon Katich and Shane Watson were making hay in the morning, it seemed not. When the rain swept in from the north mid-afternoon and threatened to wash out the rest of the day's play, it appeared so.
Australia's batsmen offered much stouter resistance than they had on that first morning.
Simon Katich, limping from the pain of his sore Achilles, battled away with gritted teeth for almost two hours until Swann had him caught behind off the skinniest of snicks.
Shane Watson, planting that big front foot down the pitch, clunked and cut merrily for an hour longer before the excellent Steve Finn moved one away to draw the edge to slip.
That he failed for the 13th time to convert a flashy fifty into a century came as no great surprise. That Ricky Ponting lasted only 19 balls before being undone by Swann's straight one left England ecstatic.
The ball before had spat up a puff of dust from the disintegrating surface and turned sharply into Ponting's pad. Plunging forward to the next one, he played for the same turn and edged low and fast to Collingwood's left at slip.
An aggregate of nine runs for the match was not in Punter's pre-game plans. On the grassy bank in front of the scoreboard, Barmy Army trumpeter Billy Cooper parped out Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, while the troops took delight in swapping Swann's name into the title instead.
There were other chances. With a black curtain of rain hanging round the back of the Chappell Stands, James Anderson fizzed successive balls past Hussey's poking pushes. Collingwood found the edge of the same man's bat with his cheeky off-cutters only for the ball to fly just past the left hand of Anderson at slip.
Mr Cricket hoicked Swann away over midwicket for six, only to squirt the next ball so close to his stumps that timber and leather could have exchanged phone numbers.
As each opportunity slipped past and the clouds overhead grew steadily darker, English hands grabbed at heads and mouths forming anguished O's.
The pattern for the final day had been set. Tick-tock, drip-drop.