There had to be a winner and a loser, a pity though it was, but when the decision came in the hot, early afternoon there could only be one regret.
It was that it was delivered to England not in the utterly unequivocal way of one of those passages of stunning cricket which made the first Ashes Test here arguably the most fascinating if not the greatest ever played, but by mere gadgetry.
You need the stuff, of course, because more often than not it both renders justice and makes of the cheating that was taking such a hold on the old game a few years ago an extremely small window of opportunity, indeed mostly as narrow as a slit in a castle wall. Stuart Broad crawled through it egregiously enough at a pivotal point in this extraordinary contest, refusing to walk when all those present and even someone with a TV dish on the side of a Swiss Alp knew that he had been caught by Australian captain Michael Clarke.
Because the Australians had been so injudicious in using their technological options, Broad was able quite shamelessly to stand his ground at the crease – and score another 28 runs.
When victory came to England – as the balance of events always suggested it should – the margin was 14 runs and they had already been pushed into some desperate acts of gamesmanship. It was something guaranteed to tug at the psyche, and maybe the instinct for revenge, in an Australian team which had made such a joke of the English presumption that the latest collision between the old enemies would amount to not much more than a formal slaughter.
Of course, there was nothing dubious about the final act of England’s triumph.
James Anderson, who these days is taking the man-of-the-match award not so much as an achievement but as formal recognition of his growing prowess as the nonpareil of swing bowling, lured the latest Australian hero, veteran Brad Haddin, into a rash drive and England wicketkeeper Matt Prior claimed more excitedly than anyone that the ball had made feathery contact with the bat before landing in his gloves.
The umpire disagreed, England’s review appeal went in and there, disembodied from the brilliant action, waited for the right verdict. When it came, they whooped and danced around the field which had for five days been graced by the most intriguing action.
It didn’t feel right. It felt like settling a tumultuous fight by committee decision. A climax which promised to be every bit as dramatic as the one which carried England to victory in the Edgbaston Ashes Test of 2005 had been annexed, detached from the heart of action that began to swell dramatically when Haddin nudged and occasionally biffed the score along in the company of such potential match winners as 19-year-old Ashton Agar, again, Peter Siddle and the new No 11 James Pattinson.
When Haddin and Agar walked to the wicket Australia needed 137 runs with four wickets remaining. Haddin, especially, prosecuted the task so resolutely that at the approach of lunch, with the Australian target just 20 runs away, England could be seen to be in the first stages of a serious panic.
Once again Broad had a part to play which was somewhat less than uplifting. He sat down to inspect his shoes, which deceived no one, and least of all umpire Kumar Dharmasena, as to his true purpose. It was to prevent the possibility of one more over before lunch – and put a stop, for 40 minutes at least, to some growing Australian momentum. Dharmasena insisted that the over be bowled, and when Graeme Swann performed the task it was at no cost to the composure of Haddin and Pattinson.
This was not quite what we had come to hope for from a match which had so consistently produced cricket of the most competitive and appealing nature. There were, also, those performances which carry the battle to Lord’s next Thursday with anticipation surely close to unprecedented.
England have been reminded of the enduring powers of such as Jonathan Trott, captain Alastair Cook – who preened a little like Tarzan when he took the astounding catch that sent back the worryingly serene young Agar – and, most of all, a luminous Ian Bell. Swann delivered some vital blows and Anderson’s 10 victims made another claim on the title of the world’s best swing bowler.
Most dramatic, though – and relevant to the quality of this summer’s battling – has been the extraordinary transformation in the levels of Australian self-belief.
They came here regretting the lack of match practice for suspended, serial recidivist David Warner and the fears that the captain Clarke was maybe too fragile to last through the summer. Yet in just a few days we have seen the emergence of a posse of potential match winners.
It may be that Agar will have to settle for something less mystical, for a while at least, than his first-innings 98 but for the moment he remains an outright phenomenon, having won a promotion three places up the batting order in his first Test match.
At No 5 Steve Smith has shown a vigorous and confident approach and the veteran Chris Rogers demonstrated impressive nerve in leading Australia’s response to the 311 target set by England for the fourth innings.
Haddin and his last partner Pattinson were drained to their core when the verdict came in on the big screen and certainly it was not the way they had imagined they might seal their place in cricket history. The moment of their defeat might have been a bad letter found in the mail box. It came, after all, when the action was spent.
However, there was no reason to believe that there was anything at all final in the news of their defeat.
England won a brilliant Test and in the final measurement no one could say their triumph was undeserved. But then you had only to look at the body language of their celebration to realise that there was more than a little drama still to come.