Setting Australia 175 to win, after the tourists had been bowled out for 244 in their second innings, it might have been a glorious failure as the home side cruised to 130 for 3. But England's bowlers had other ideas. Pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion, in a final session that lasted four hours, they dismissed Australia for 162, as their opponents choked on a mixture of complacency and bad memories.
If one man could be singled out it was Dean Headley, who took 6 for 60. Headley came on at the Southern end at 5.48pm and bowled until the end. The duration of the spell - 105 minutes - was impressive, and the impact should last even longer. Australia go into the last Test with the Ashes safe and a 2-1 lead, but they also know they are no longer indomitable.
England's record at the MCG is far superior to that on other Australian grounds, and there were similar resonances this time to England's victory here in 1982, when the winning margin was three runs. Indeed, since the Ashes have been contested Australia have won 25 Tests here to England's 19, a fair proportion for an away team.
When the glorious moment came at 7.33pm, 14 minutes after Steve Waugh had insisted on taking the extra half-hour, the shadows were longer than the Australian faces.
Victory is not commonplace in England's repertoire, but they have an aptitude for winning the close ones, something this Australian side lacks. They lost to England at the Oval 18 months ago, chasing less, and a memory must have surfaced.
Mind you, England had to get close first, and you could tell by the emotion that swept across the MCG when Darren Gough's toe-crusher caught the last man, Glenn McGrath, stone dead that this success was a lottery win not a certainty.
"I thought 175 would be competitive," said Alec Stewart afterwards. "In the past Australia have slipped up chasing totals like that."
Ironically, Stewart had wanted to come off when the extra half-hour became available to him. "Sure I was trying it on a little," he admitted. "With tea being taken early, it was a long session and I felt our bowlers were tired. But, seriously, if teams have to make up for time lost to rain the length of session needs to be looked at.
"I was pleased with the fight we showed. Dean Headley's was a magnificent effort along with Darren Gough's and Alan Mullally's. I was about to take Dean off on several occasions, but he kept battling. Our aim is to square the series and go home 2-2, not 3-1."
Well though Mullally bowled in taking two key Aussie wickets, it was his batting, an entertaining 16, that took the aerial route, that proved crucial.
Before this innings he had made five ducks in the series, one away from equalling the record set by Alan Hurst. McGrath tried, as he has done all series, to scupper him here with a barrage of bouncers and verbals, though this time the latter cost him a A$2,500 (pounds 900) fine from the match referee, John Reid.
Yet if the match turned on one key moment, it was probably the superb catch taken by Mark Ramprakash to dismiss Justin Langer. The left-hander, who had already taken a heavy toll of his Middlesex team-mate Angus Fraser, was on 30 when he tried to do the same to Mullally.
Pulling the lanky fast bowler, after he had dropped a delivery a fraction short, Langer could only laugh in disbelief as Ramprakash, fielding alongside the square-leg umpire, flung himself scrum-half-like to take a miraculous catch with his right hand.
People talk about moments that inspire change. Well, this was one that transformed England's sweaty toilers into blinkered believers and hard graft into sweet success.
"Ramps' catch was the thing that fired them up," said Australia's captain, Mark Taylor. "Our attitude over the last two hours was bad. We batted as if it was just a matter of going out there and hitting the ball."
Many believe that Taylor, who won the toss and put England in to bat, had made a major error. Since 1963, no more than 200 had ever been made by a team batting last at the MCG.
Taylor added: "There's no doubt that, at 130 for 3, everyone on the ground was convinced that that was the game. But just as we were thinking what we might do tonight, a brilliant catch, a poor shot and we're under pressure. Often 15 or 20 minutes is all it takes to change a Test."
Whether or not England are disciples of that particular Andy Warhol-ism, there is no escaping the fact that, until Headley removed Mark Waugh for 43, they were the outsiders.
Until that moment Waugh had looked untroubled. But Headley, after an early savaging from Michael Slater, bowled with real gusto and Waugh's dismissal, which was well taken by Graeme Hick at second slip, was made to look more slovenly than it really was.
With Waugh gone, Headley hit the motherlode, wreaking havoc among Australia's middle order. In 14 balls, he took 4 for 4, including Darren Lehmann and Ian Healy, whose gambling spirit fell flat as he scythed to second slip.
It was easy to forget the work achieved earlier in the day by the England batsmen. With runs a priority, Hick, Stewart, and Nasser Hussain all made half-centuries. Hick can feel gratified that one of his efforts was at the forefront of victory instead of buried in a defeat.
Australia are never beaten until Steve Waugh has been forced to lay down his bat. But his team-mates were feeling the squeeze. Suddenly, the debutant Matthew Nicholson, having added 21 with Waugh, edged Headley behind for 9. But Waugh made the error of allowing his new partner, MacGill, to take the strike. It was a mistake, with the ball swinging Irish and England with their tails up.
In the space of three balls, Gough cleaned up both MacGill and McGrath to leave Waugh stranded for the second time in the match. The Waugh zone may not have been breached, but that did not prevent the Barmy Army from invading, and they were still partying well into the wee hours.
For once, the pitch, with barely three days of usage, could not be blamed. What could, was the widespread belief that this England side could not win a Test on a silver platter let alone one at the mecca of Australian cricket.
In the end, with one day left unplayed, it was quite simply an extraordinary Test match, that England ended up winning, and winning well.
Fourth day, Australia won toss
ENGLAND: First Innings 270 (A J Stewart 107, M R Ramprakash 63).
AUSTRALIA: First Innings 340 (S R Waugh 122no; D Gough 5-96).
ENGLAND - Second Innings
*A J Stewart c Slater b MacGill 52
120 mins, 98 balls, 4 fours
D W Headley b McGrath 1
22 mins, 15 balls
N Hussain c Slater b Nicholson 50
157 mins, 131 balls, 6 fours
M R Ramprakash b Nicholson 14
66 mins, 43 balls
G A Hick b Fleming 60
123 mins, 82 balls, 8 fours
+W K Hegg c MacGill b Nicholson 9
28 mins, 21 balls, 1 four
D Gough c Slater b MacGill 4
20 mins, 14 balls
A R C Fraser not out 7
25 mins, 20 balls
A D Mullally c and b McGrath 16
21 mins, 15 balls, 3 fours
Extras (b2,lb4,nb11) 17
Total (333 mins, 80.2 overs) 244
Fall: 1-5 (Atherton), 2-61 (Butcher), 3-66 (Headley), 4-78 (Stewart), 5-127 (Ramprakash), 6-178 (Hussain), 7-202 (Hegg), 8-221 (Gough), 9-221 (Hick), 10-244 (Mullally).
Bowling: McGrath 20.2-5-56-2 (nb6) (5-1-23-0 1-0-3-0 7-3-10-1 6-1-12- 0 1.2-0-8-1); Fleming 17-4-45-2 (nb1) (6-2-12-1 4-0-11-0 3-1-13-0 4-1- 9-1); Nicholson 15-4-56-3 (4-1-11-0 5-1-21-1 6-2-24-2); MacGill 27-3-81- 3 (nb4) (16-2-44-2 5-1-16-0 6-0-21-1); M Waugh 1-1-0-0.
Progress: Third day: 50 in 67 mins, 15.2 overs. Close 65-2 (Stewart 43, Headley 0) 22 overs. Fourth day: 100 in 155 mins, 39 overs. 150 in 213 mins, 52.3 overs. Lunch 174-5 (Hussain 50, Hick 30) 60 overs. 200 in 283 mins, 69.2 overs. Innings closed 3.11p m - early tea taken. Stewart 50: 115 mins, 95 balls, 4 fours. Hussain 50: 140 mins, 121 balls, 6 fours. Hick 50: 101 mins, 72 balls, 6 fours.
AUSTRALIA - Second Innings
M J Slater lbw b Headley 18
26 mins, 23 balls, 3 fours
*M A Taylor c Headley b Mullally 19
50 mins, 33 balls, 1 four
J L Langer c Ramprakash b Mullally 30
105 mins, 47 balls, 3 fours
M E Waugh c Hick b Headley 43
116 mins, 81 balls, 3 fours
S R Waugh not out 30
107 mins, 49 balls, 2 fours
D S Lehmann c Hegg b Headley 4
11 mins, 7 balls, 1 four
+I A Healy c Hick b Headley 0
8 mins, 2 balls
D W Fleming lbw b Headley 0
2 mins, 3 balls
M J Nicholson c Hegg b Headley 9
40 mins, 29 balls
S C G MacGill b Gough 0
4 mins, 2 balls
G D McGrath lbw b Gough 0
2 mins, 2 balls
Extras (b4,lb1,nb4) 9
Total (240 mins, 46.4 overs) 162
Fall: 1-31 (Slater), 2-41 (Taylor), 3-103 (Langer), 4-130 (M Waugh), 5-140 (Lehmann), 6-140 (Healy), 7-140 (Fleming), 8-161 (Nicholson), 9- 162 (MacGill), 10-162 (McGrath).
Bowling: Gough 15.4-2-54-2 (nb1) (5-1-13-0 2-0-11-0 8.4-1-30-2); Headley 17-5-60-6 (nb3) (7-1-34-1 10-4-26-5); Mullally 10-4-20-2, Fraser 4-0-23- 0 (one spell each).
Progress: Fourth day: 50 in 68 mins, 14 overs. 100 in 129 mins, 26.1 overs. 150 in 215 mins, 42 overs. England won at 7.32pm.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and D J Harper. TV Replay Umpire: G T Morrow. Match Referee: J R Reid.
Man of the match: D W Headley.
ENGLAND WON BY 12 RUNS.
Compiled by Jo King