Informed opinion suggested that a lead of 300 should be quite enough for England to seal the deal against Australia. It was hinted in some circles that a lot fewer might do.
As it turns out, informed opinion knew exactly what it was talking about. By the early evening, just as twilight was replacing the sunshine, the home side took an unassailable 3-0 lead in the series with a stunning victory by 74 runs.
But, oh, how the tourists made it seem as though the prognosis might be mere hogwash. In keeping with a match and a series that has veered this way and that they were going along serenely in pursuit of a target of 299 as if two runs represented their opponents’ failure to cross some psychological mathematical barrier.
The fourth Investec Test turned irretrievably in England’s favour in the last session when nine wickets went down for 104 runs. The last eight went for 56 in 150 balls. There seemed no reason for it, but by the time Jimmy Anderson took the final catch at 7.40pm to give his fast-bowling partner Stuart Broad his sixth wicket it had long been inevitable.
Yet two hours earlier, England seemed to have run out of luck and ideas. It had become Australia’s match to lose. Then, suddenly, remarkably in a startling sequence with the riverside ground basking in the last remnants of high summer, the whole mood was altered.
Propelled initially by Graeme Swann, who made the vital opening incision, the home side were then carried along on the crest of a wave by a furious spell of fast bowling from Broad and another of probing accuracy by Tim Bresnan. England’s planets, all over the shop earlier in the day, were dramatically in alignment.
Australia barely had time to assimilate what was happening. They had been 109 without loss, they were in slightly less prosperous territory at 168 for 2 but everything that followed was disastrous.
It was one of those unfathomable periods that had no rational basis. Perhaps it happened because England had been unbeaten for 11 matches and Australia had not won for seven. For one side the finishing line holds no fears, the other sense it can bring only disappointment.
The day was packed with incident as if it was imperative the game be concluded. England began the day with five wickets in hand and had lost the lot within 90 minutes. This was largely the result of the first spell of fast bowling at its resplendent peak.
Ryan Harris, who has left his stamp on the summer, did not deserve what happened later, but then that is sport. He removed Ian Bell, the England centurion, with a ball that kept cruelly low. Even a batsman as accomplished as Bell with 113 to his name could not bring his bat down on it.
Next ball, Harris produced one to Matt Prior which lifted and went from bat via elbow to the stumps.
It was all action from there on. Australia kept taking wickets but England kept scoring runs. Bresnan stood tall and swatted, Swann boomed off the front foot. Harris took two more wickets to finish with seven in a Test innings for the first time. The lead was 298. Ample.
The manner in which Chris Rogers and David Warner went about the chase in their differing styles suggested that not only was it not plenty but was well short of it. Rogers was studious and fortuitous, Warner batted with flair and timing.
The batting was a combination of the assiduous and the fearless, the bowling was not quite as tenacious as it might have been. Anderson was distinctly off colour, there was no zip anywhere.
Whether the home side, the Ashes already secure after taking a 2-0 lead with two games to play, thought that it was all but in the bag, or whether a mercurial pitch chose to be on better behaviour, are moot points.
What really changed the tenor of proceedings in those few hours was that Australia had nothing to lose and England knew it. Run scoring was a formality. The breakthrough resolutely refused to come. Rogers was given out but survived on review, he was dropped at slip by Swann.
At last, England had a break. Swann turned one which found the edge of Rogers’ bat. He was held low by Jonathan Trott at slip. Still there was no indication of what was to come.
Usman Khawaja played pleasantly enough before his bat and became entangled as he tried to deal with a half volley from Swann. It was an easy lbw verdict.
The match shifted irreversibly, the series was lost for Australia when Bresnan, replacing Swann after 14 overs at the Finchale End, found a ball which lifted disconcertingly at Warner. He did well to edge it behind.
Now came Broad. He bowled Michael Clarke with a peach that seamed away and trimmed off stump, he bowled Steve Smith who was attempting an audacious hook and managed to end up facing the wrong way to watch the ball teeter on to his stumps.
Bresnan intervened to have Shane Watson lbw, playing, surprise, surprise, across his front pad and Broad then dismissed Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon. England asked for and were granted the extra half an hour but the light was worsening. They had to bowl spin from both ends. The prospect loomed of a fifth day and who knows what.
But out came the sun for one final flourish. Broad was given the ball. Peter Siddle drove. It hung in the air. Anderson took the catch at mid-off. He was engulfed by his team-mates. The Ashes had been retained, now they were won.