The home side, looking to turn their 3-0 series win into a dream 4-0 success over the Australians, required 21 in 24 balls when Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena produced the dreaded light meters and signalled the end of proceedings.
In doing so, the officials surely followed procedure to the letter but to deny a full house a natural conclusion to an unforgettable day of Test cricket at the Kia Oval felt like a sport fatally hamstrung by its own laws. That certainly seemed to be the view of the supporters, who roundly booed the decision – an ill-fitting end to a triumphant series win by Alastair Cook’s side.
That England were within touching distance of victory was only made possible in the first place by a perfect storm of events, including a gambler’s declaration by Australia captain Michael Clarke and a quite wonderful knock of 62 in 55 balls by a bombastic Kevin Pietersen.
Clarke’s second declaration of the match, at 111 for six, left England a tempting but unlikely target of 227 in 44 overs after tea. They ticked along nicely early in the innings but really gained traction towards that mark when Pietersen was at the crease, thrashing ten boundaries and bringing a vocal crowd to the boil.
Jonathan Trott also impressed with a fluent 59, and at the end the incoming Matt Prior and debutant Chris Woakes required less than a run a ball before being ordered from the pitch.
By that point, Clarke had long since given up on the adventurous spirit, constantly eating up time and complaining to the umpires about the admittedly dreadful light. England were doing their best to give the opposite impression, but the decision to go off for light no longer rests with the batting side.
Cook praised his players for winning the Ashes and also reserved credit for batsman Ian Bell who was named man of the series as well as England player of the series. Cook said of the Warwickshire batsman: “He was outstanding with his three hundreds at crucial times. Every one of those guys in the team can be proud of what they’ve done.
“I knew we had the opportunity to win the Ashes here in England and I’m very proud of what the boys have done.”
Clarke said he had no doubt about setting a target for England on the final day. “We’re here to try and win every game we played. We were outplayed during the series and couldn’t get over the line,” he said.
ECB chairman Giles Clarke was not happy with the way the Test and the series had ended following the drawn Test. “It’s totally unsatisfactory the way the game ended – the rules are clearly unacceptable and I expect [ICC chief executive] David Richardson to change it at the next ICC chief executives’ meeting.”
Had things been allowed to play out to the end, England were strong favourites to claim a 4-0 home Ashes win for the first time ever and also give Clarke the dubious honour of being only the third Test captain – after Sir Garfield Sobers (1968) and Graeme Smith (2006) – to lose a Test having declared twice.
Australia had just taken their fifth wicket with England on 206, Mitchell Starc producing a remarkable stop and throw to dismiss Bell and, crucially, give the umpires a window to check on the light. Amid the frustration, it should not be overlooked that a draw leaves Australia without a win in an Ashes series for the first time since 1977.
The day had started with a knockabout end-of-term feeling, England in much more playful mood than they had been on day three, when they eked out their runs at little more than two an over.
Resuming their first innings on 247 for four, they added 130 runs in 28.4 overs to move things along. Prior and Graeme Swann enjoyed the freedom to score a combined 81 in 81 balls before James Faulkner dismissed both on his way to four wickets.
England’s 377 left Australia 115 ahead and they put together a harum scarum second innings of 111 for six before declaring at tea. Quick runs and regular wickets were the order of the day in that knock, Stuart Broad pocketing four scalps and Michael Clarke reaching 28 not out.
England’s unlikely chase started encouragingly through Alastair Cook and Joe Root. The stands then roared Pietersen to the crease, and their belief rose with every stroke of his bat. Such was his dominance that his 50 partnership with Trott contained just seven runs from the number three, while his own half-century occupied just 36 deliveries.
England managed to survive his dismissal, but they could not get the better of the conditions.