Rocking at 37-3 and with Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen losing their wickets, the English were stumbling in their bid to bat out the day and secure the series-clinching draw.
Then a band of persistent rain – promised by forecasters for the past two days – arrived shortly after lunch, denying Australia a shot at a series-saving win.
Play was abandoned an hour after tea, leaving England with an unassailable 2-0 lead with two tests remaining in the series. Not since 1981 has it won three straight Ashes series, extending the team’s dominance over its great rival since 2009.
It was a thoroughly unsatisfactory end to a test that was building up to a thrilling finale after four days of absorbing cricket at Old Trafford.
And Australia will bemoan the fact that rain has spared England when not a single minute was lost to weather in the series up until Sunday afternoon.
After being dominated in losses at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, the tourists hit back strongly in the third test and have had England on the rack since the opening day in Manchester.
But they were well aware that rain could scupper their chances and had no option but to declare overnight on 172-7 – setting England a victory target of 332.
Initially, the bleak forecast proved wide of the mark. Play began 30 minutes late because of overnight rain but the sun was poking out from beneath a full cloud covering and there wasn’t an umbrella in sight in a sparsely populated crowd when Cook was trapped lbw by Ryan Harris in the 15th ball of the innings.
The England captain wasted a review, as replays showed he was clearly out.
England was on the defensive – Root took 26 balls to get off the mark – and Trott narrowly survived an lbw review from Harris before his sketchy innings came to an end when he glanced a leg-side edge to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin. The score was 15-2 after an hour’s play and Australia was scenting a chance under the floodlights.
Pietersen was England’s star act in the first innings with a dazzling 113 but after one classy pull for four, he was dropped at second slip by Michael Clarke before eventually departing when he edged behind for Haddin’s seventh catch of the match. With Pietersen referring the call to DRS before heading back to the pavilion after audio revealed a clear nick, both of England’s reviews were used up.
Root and Bell survived to lunch but Bell took a fierce blow to the thumb from Siddle in the third delivery after the resumption, the ball floating over the slip cordon to safety.
While Bell was receiving treatment, rain started to fall again – and there wouldn’t be another ball bowled. Root was on 13 and Bell on 4.
England hasn’t been at its best this series, only winning the first test by 14 runs and being outplayed here in Manchester. It gives Australia renewed hope of not just leveling the series by winning the final two tests in Durham and at The Oval but also reclaiming the tiny urn in the return series starting November.