England were denied a record 4-0 Ashes victory at home last night when umpires Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena refused to allow play to continue in the fifth Test with the team needing just 21 to win.
In a series marred by inept and controversial umpiring, it was apt that the final decision over bad light overshadowed a remarkable finale to the Test.
Chris Woakes was 17 not out and England 5-206 with 24 balls left to achieve the target of 227 when the umpires stoped play at 7.34pm.
Woakes and incoming batsman Matt Prior argued strongly to be allowed to continue but new regulations do not give the umpires any discetion once they have decided that the light is too poor.
The decision saved Australia who would have lost an Ashes series 4-0 in England for the first time after Michael Clarke’s bold declaration opened the door for Kevin Pietersen to stage a brilliant farewell performance.
Playing what was likely to be his final Ashes Test in England at the scene of his greatest triumph, Australia’s tormentor hammered 62 from just 55 balls at The Oval.
The capacity crowd screamed like few cricket audiences for the final 30 minutes of the chase as Bell and debutant Woakes edged closer to the target.
It would have been just the third time in history that a team had lost after declaring both its innings but only came after Clarke tried to salvage something from the fifth Test after a full day was lost to rain.
Clarke declared Australia’s second innings at 6-111 to set England 227 to win in 44 overs.
After crawling at two runs an over for much of their first innings, England batted with far greater alacrity on the final day as both camps saw the opportunity for an unanticipated victory.
Jonathan Trott (59) acted as the cornerstone of the chase but it was the arrival of Pietersen, after Alastair Cook decided against using a review to examine his LBW dismissal, that gave England the impetus to charge home.
At the ground where Pietersen announced himself in 2005 as one of the game’s superstars by scoring 158 to secure the Ashes for his adopted country, he relished the opportunity to produce a final and exhilarating display on centre stage.
Pietersen thumped 10 fours during a 77-run stand in which Trott contributed just 13.
History was made at the start of the innings when wicket-keeper Brad Haddin broke Rod Marsh’s Test record of 28 dismissals in a series when he snared Joe Root off Ryan Harris.
No Australian team had ever lost 4-0 in England but Clarke was prepared to take that risk rather than allow the final Ashes instalment to peter out into a dreary draw.
Australia displayed far greater enterprise than England had shown until last night as the home team remained content to protect their 3-0 series lead.
The Australian top order was reshaped with Shane Watson finishing the series as he started it by returning to open, where he thrashed 26 before holing out on the long-on boundary.
Tailenders James Faulkner, Harris and Mitchell Starc were also promoted in the quest for quick runs.
Faulkner had earlier returned the best debut figures by an Australian seamer since Stuart Clark nearly a decade ago when he claimed 4-51 as England relinquished their dour approach.
No batsman reached 50 but Bell, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann relished the low-pressure situation in the morning as England raced to 377, a deficit of 115 on Australia’s first innings.
The crowd built steadily as they anticipated the moment when Cook was to be presented with a replica of the Ashes urn.