England must wait for their chance to reclaim the Ashes urn but Stuart Broad and Jack Leach ensured a first drawn series since 1972 by condemning Australia to a 135-run loss at The Oval.
Last week’s win at Old Trafford ensured the tourists would be the ones lifting the one of sport’s smallest but most revered prizes at the close – but their celebrations came tinged with the disappointment of defeat and a 2-2 series scoreline.
After asking Australia to chase a towering total of 399, England finally cracked Steve Smith’s code – dismissing him for under 50 for the first time in 11 innings – and outlasted a defiant Matthew Wade, who made 117.
Broad and Leach finished with four wickets each as the tourists were bowled out for 263, Broad grabbing the main prize when Smith flicked to Ben Stokes at leg-slip for just 23 and Leach ending things at 6.10pm with two wickets in two balls.
The result sent England’s outgoing coach Trevor Bayliss out on a high after more than four years at the helm and denied Tim Paine the bragging rights of becoming the first Australia skipper since 2001 to oversee an outright win on these shores.
Smith was expected to be the main obstacle to a home success on day four and as long as he was active, anything was possible. For once he betrayed his mortality, suckered into a well-laid trap to finish with a gargantuan series tally of 774 runs scored, 1,196 balls faced and an average of 110.57.
It fell to the team’s sledger-in-chief, Wade, to carry the fight and he fought through a fiery and ill-tempered tussle with Jofra Archer to make a fine hundred. He was eighth man out deep in the evening session when England skipper Joe Root had him stumped, his second wicket in a useful cameo with the ball.
Root was also involved at the death, holding both catches as Leach picked off Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood, and so ended a famous summer for cricket in this country taking in a historic World Cup win at Lord’s and a compelling Ashes contest.
England resumed on 313 for eight overnight, 382 ahead, and were swept aside in 18 minutes for the addition of 16 runs.
The stage was set for the final act of the campaign but Australia’s brow-beaten openers were bit-part players once again as each finished with averages of under 10.
Marcus Harris was sent on his way in picturesque fashion, pushing down the wrong line as Broad sent off stump cartwheeling. David Warner remains the bigger scalp, though, marked out by his personality and previous pedigree rather than his recent output.
Broad removed him for the seventh time in the series by recycling a favourite routine: round the wicket, outside off stump, careless edge, caught at slip.
New Zealand’s John D’Arcy held the previous worst return for an opener across 10 innings of a series, scoring 136 against England in 1958, but Warner’s persistently paltry efforts have brought him just 95 despite his 61 at Headingley.
That brought Smith to the crease, charged with producing another epic alongside his protege Marnus Labuschagne. The latter failed to reach lunch, stretching to cover Leach’s spin only to be beaten on the outside. Spotting the back leg just off the ground, Jonny Bairstow whipped off the bails.
Smith held the fate of the game in his hands but for once he could not summon something special. Broad dug one in towards Smith’s rib-cage, persuading the 30-year-old to flick casually off his hip, but unusually his calculations were off: the shot was too fine, Stokes dived to capture the key wicket and Smith walked off to his most generous applause in a summer of boos.
Mitch Marsh was caught off a Chris Woakes no-ball on six then saw Rory Burns drop a tough one-handed chance on 13. In the end it took Root’s part-time spin to get him at short-leg.
England wasted both reviews chasing lbws before they finally tempted Kumar Dharmasena to raise his finger, Leach straightening one towards leg stump and finding Paine shotless on 21.
Wade had been chipping away busily for a couple of hours to England’s chagrin. His stream of chatter has worn on England over recent weeks and they offered plenty in return.
Things built to a frenzy during an eight-over spell from the fired-up Archer, a compulsive passage of play featuring an angry 95.6mph delivery, a hefty blow to the shoulder, outside edges, extended follow-throughs and four or five high-class boundaries.
By the time Archer reluctantly exited the attack Wade was up to 96. He faced a nervy wait for his century but got there with a single from his 147th ball.
After a hard-won celebration Wade briefly lost his composure. Root could have dismissed him with successive deliveries on 106, Bairstow missing a stumping as the ball spat out of the rough and Stokes parrying one-handed at slip.
Root got his man in the end, Bairstow getting the job done at his second opportunity, with the tail unable to stretch things out to day five.
The teams do not meet again until England head Down Under in 2021-22, when Root will hope to wrestle back the urn.