Spectators were huddled under umbrellas in rapidly emptying stands and rain was splattering large puddles on a drenched outfield when a message on the giant scoreboard blared out - “England Retains The Ashes.”

It was hardly the picture-perfect way England’s players imagined finishing off great rival Australia for a third straight Ashes series, but they couldn’t really care less.

“It’s an anticlimax in one way today,” England captain Alastair Cook, “but ... I’d have snapped your hand off to be in this position.”

Manchester’s notoriously grim weather came to England’s rescue on Monday as Cook’s side escaped with a draw on the final day of a third test dominated by the Australians.

Needing to bat out the day to avoid defeat and clinch the series at the earliest possible opportunity, England was rocking on 37-3 and feeling the heat from some tight Australian bowling when rain arrived three balls after lunch.

It never relented and the match was abandoned as a draw an hour after tea, leaving England with a 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.

“You know when you come to the U.K. that there is a chance that rain is going to play a part in the series,” Australia captain Michael Clarke said. “And we got ourselves into the position of being 2-0 down so it was always going to be tough coming back from that.”

Many of England’s players were sitting on their dressing-room balcony, staring at the showers slanting across the Old Trafford pitch, when Australia’s fate was sealed.

They waved to what was left of a sparsely populated crowd and then went down to the pitch to sign autographs and shake hands with fans.

It was certainly a bit different to the scenes at a sun-kissed Sydney Cricket Ground when England retained the Ashes in 2011. There was no victorious sprinkler dance the surface was wet enough as it was.

“The dressing room is a pretty happy place at the moment,” Cook said.

This hasn’t been a vintage series by the English, but they did the damage in the first two tests with a 14-run win at Trent Bridge and then a crushing 347-run victory at Lord’s.

The Australians fought back well in Manchester and had England on the rack for all five days, but the elements conspired against them. Not a single minute had been lost to weather in the series up until Sunday afternoon.

“We are just frustrated that we didn’t get the whole match in,” Clarke said. “It would have been a classic test match - it would have been a great finish today.”

Australia was well aware that rain could scupper its chances on the final day and had no option but to declare overnight on 172-7 setting England a victory target of 332.

The forecast was for rain all day but showers that had come down throughout the night stopped an hour before the start of play, and only the first half an hour was lost.

Under threatening skies, Cook (0), Jonathan Trott (11) and first-inning centurion Kevin Pietersen (8) all departed as England stumbled to lunch on 35-3.

The comeback was on for Australia it just needed the rain to hold off.

“It wasn’t the ideal first hour and a half,” Cook said.

The rain stopped at one stage, and a pitch inspection was called. But Australian hopes were dashed as the covers were re-applied, once and for all. Only 20.3 overs were possible on Monday.

The news came over the loudspeaker at 4.38 p.m. local time (1538 GMT) that the match had been abandoned, generating a few cheers from pockets of wet fans around the ground.

England’s next task is to win the series by securing victory either at the fourth test at Durham starting Friday, or the fifth test at The Oval.

“Our first objective was to retain the Ashes, now I want to win them,” said Cook, who won his first Ashes series as captain.

“We didn’t play our best game here and were put under pressure by Australia but we fought extremely hard here batting a long time and avoiding the follow on was crucial - so I can’t complain how we have handled this week. We are proving we are a hard side to beat.”

Scoreboard:

Australia — 1st innings: 527 for seven decl.

England — 1st innings: 368.

Australia — 2nd innings: C. Rogers c Prior b Broad 12, D. Warner c Root b Bresnan 41, U. Khawaja b Swann 24, S. Watson c Pietersen b Bresnan 18, M. Clarke (not out) 30, S. Smith run out 19, B. Haddin c Broad b Anderson 8, M. Starc c Swann b Anderson 11, R. Harris (not out) 0; Extras (b-4, lb-2, w-3): 9; Total (for seven wkts. decl. in 36 overs): 172.

Fall of wickets: 1-23, 2-74, 3-99, 4-103, 5-133, 6-152, 7-172.

England bowling: Anderson 8-0-37-2, Broad 7-2-30-1, Swann 15-0-74-1, Bresnan 6-0-25-2.

England — 2nd innings: A. Cook lbw b Harris 0, J. Root (not out) 13, J. Trott c Haddin b Harris 11, K. Pietersen c Haddin b Siddle 8, I. Bell (not out) 4; Extras (w-1): 1; Total (for three wkts. in 20.3 overs): 37.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-15, 3-27.

Australia bowling: Harris 7-3-13-2, Starc 4-2-6-0, Watson 2-2-0-0, Lyon 3-0-8-0, Siddle 3.3-0-8-1, Clarke 1-0-2-0.

More In: Cricket | Sport