In the end the moment of triumph arrived with the dampest of English fizzles.
With the announcement at 4.39pm around a near-deserted Old Trafford that play had been abandoned for the day, England's cricketers formally retained the Ashes after the third Test was drawn in ultimately grim, forbidding and irredeemably dank conditions.
After all the brouhaha, the canned excitement, the gladiatorial marketing, this latest edition of cricket's grandest Test rivalry was decided not by bold sporting feats, but instead by an absence of cricket as rain that fell throughout the day finally settled in for good from 2pm. Australia were denied the chance to push for victory on the final day and thereby extend uncertainty over the destiny of the urn this summer into the forthcoming Tests at Durham and the Oval.
Basking in their 2-0 lead from the opening two Tests, England had leisure here to produce instead one of their more ingloriously scratchy innings of recent times, creeping to 37-3 off 20 overs before the rain intervened to give Alastair Cook's team one of the more slow-burn, bathetically drawn-out moments of modern-day Ashes glory.
As it stands, England will now have emerged from three straight Ashes series on home soil with the urn in their possession, having regained the Ashes in 2005 and again in 2009. More immediately, reports of the death of this particular Ashes series appear to have been greatly exaggerated as Australia held the whip hand in this Test all the way through and would almost certainly have won had the Manchester rain not intervened.
In the event England at least had the decency not to erect a podium on the sodden Old Trafford outfield and wave the urn to the semi-deserted stands, settling instead for a brief celebratory appearance on the team balcony in front of a few boisterous Barmy Army diehards, a slightly sheepish round of handshakes, and a sense of history not so much having been made as rather gruellingly endured.
For the last two days all the talk around Old Trafford had been of weather: radar, wind patterns and the wider mystique of Lancastrian micro-climates. If it wasn't raining in Manchester, attention turned to the surrounding areas, assisted by a particularly fevered social media. It's raining in Leicester. Drops are falling in Burnley high street. Crucially, was it raining in Didsbury yet? For the record the rule around Old Trafford seems to be: if it's raining in Didsbury it's about to rain here. If it's not raining in Didsbury it's already raining here.
And yet, against all odds there was a prompt-ish start. The clouds didn't so much clear as relent, lurking overhead looking bruised. By 11am the glorious improbability of an 11.30am start was being announced to the surprise not just of many absent ticket-holders but also – so mischievous talk had it – the England team, too. Rumours that England's players only arrived at the ground at 10.45, having taken what would have been a bewilderingly louche view of the prospects for play, were later corrected by the England and Wales Cricket Board. In fact the players had arrived early to practise in the indoor school.
With Australia declaring overnight to leave England needing 332 or to bat out 98 overs, there were early tremors as Cook departed lbw to Ryan Harris for a duck to leave them 2-1 and facing up to the possibility of defeat as the sun appeared around midday, the sky above Old Trafford containing just enough blue to stitch together if not a sailor's trousers, then perhaps a small pair of sailor's hotpants.
Australia's opening bowlers were by now steaming in with great purpose, the cultured beef of Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle hitting the pitch hard and causing problems for Jonathan Trott and Joe Root. Trott was caught behind glancing down the leg-side of the brilliantly persevering Harris, a huge square double helping of an Australian fast-bowler who stalks back to his bowling mark with his brawny arms dangling purposefully at his sides like a man preparing to rip out an entire avocado bathroom suite with his bare hands.
At the other end the equally skilled Peter Siddle had Root dropped at second slip before dismissing England's middle order princeling Kevin Pietersen, caught behind after a review to the third umpire. Pietersen walked back to the dressing room visibly furious at the decision, and with England listing on 27-3.
Happily, lunch arrived at its appointed hour. Equally happily for England, the rain, too, began to make itself felt. By now it was not only raining in Didsbury; it was also raining above Old Trafford. Great, swirling sheets of rain drenched the outfield, the hastily rolled out tarpaulin crucifix of the Old Trafford covers, and the few thousand spectators still huddled beneath umbrellas.
Briefly the skies cleared again. Briefly the players appeared at 2pm. Siddle bowled three balls before suddenly the rains returned again. This time it was terminal, the sky closing in, the buildings in the distance vanishing as hope began to fade. The crowds stalking the covered parts of the ground thinned out into the bedraggled and the obviously drunk, and aA sense of weary resignation began to settle – a prelude to England's moment of dank and decidedly understated Ashes glory.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © SmithGreg