A morning that brought two wickets for England and a sniff of a drought-breaking Ashes win gave way to a bleak afternoon for the tourists as rain washed out most of day four on Friday and left Australia well-placed to save the fourth test.
The home side were 103 for two in their second innings at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when rain interrupted play before tea and the showers lingered long enough for umpires to abandon the day without another ball bowled.
David Warner was 40 not out, with captain Steve Smith on 25 and Australia still needing another 61 runs to make England bat again.
But even with the promise of reverse swing, Joe Root’s bowlers face a big task on an unresponsive pitch to prevent Australia from batting them out of the game.
“Any time there’s a bit of rain and you’re on top in the game it’s a bit frustrating but we’ve got an opportunity tomorrow to win and that’s the attitude we’ve got to take into tomorrow,” England coach Trevor Bayliss told reporters.
“We’ve got to be very disciplined, there’s not a lot you can do on that type of wicket.
“If we can get rid of those two guys early on tomorrow and put some pressure on the opposition late order batters, as I said, anything’s possible.”
His counterpart Darren Lehmann said the pitch was “tough work” for a new batter.
“(The pitch) is getting slower,” the coach told host broadcaster Channel Nine. “So once you’re in, you’ve got to stay in.
“Our boys are fighting really hard. A couple of good (England) balls to get the wickets and Smith and the vice- captain (Warner) went about their work.”
With little cricket played, former Australia players and media pundits directed allegations of ball-tampering at England, with commentator Shane Warne suggesting seamer James Anderson had used his thumbnail to work on the ball.
Umpires warned both teams not to “scuff” the ball during the match but no reports were made to the match referee.
“It’s a beat-up,” said Bayliss.
“As soon as I saw the headlines I raced into the umpires and that was their words.”
Australia regained the Ashes after the third test in Perth and hold an unassailable 3-0 lead in the series but England had hope of cracking a first win after Alastair Cook’s unbeaten 244 propelled them to a first innings lead of 164.
They had resumed their on 491-9 in the morning but were unable to extend their total, with tail-ender Anderson dismissed first ball by paceman Pat Cummins, fending a catch straight to Cameron Bancroft at short leg.
That left former captain Cook unbeaten on his overnight score, a record total among openers who have carried their bat through an innings.
Australia’s second innings began brightly on a cloudy but dry morning, with England losing a review for a caught behind decision when opener Bancroft played at a Tom Curran ball in the seventh over.
However, the tourists seamers struck twice to leave Australia wobbling at 65-2 before Warner and Smith showed patience and poise in their unbroken stand of 38.
All-rounder Chris Woakes made the early breakthrough, bowling Bancroft for 27, with Anderson having number three Usman Khawaja caught behind for 11.