Alastair Cook lifted the Ashes urn last night after one of the great sporting anticlimaxes on a remarkable day at The Oval, as bad light stopped play – with the floodlights shining – when England were within 21 runs of a famous and historic 4-0 series win.

Half-centuries from Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott had fired them on course to chase down a victory target of 227 in 44 overs after a bold and enterprising declaration by Australia's captain, Michael Clarke, had set up a meaningful finish for a packed last‑day crowd.

But at 7.36pm the umpires Kumar Dharmasena and Aleem Dar ruled, after consulting their light meters, that the conditions were no longer playable. England were desperate to continue but Clarke had complained on several occasions that his fielders were struggling to see the ball. Under the rules that were introduced last year the umpires no longer have any flexibility – having ruled that the light was unacceptable late on the second day, again with the floodlights shining, as soon as the meter reading reached the same level, they had to take the players off.

But the majority of the crowd struggled to grasp that logic and the luckless officials were booed all the way back to the pavilion.

Matt Prior, who had walked all the way to the middle following the dismissal of Ian Bell, expressed England's frustration to the umpires. "For me there's been a lot of talk the whole series of people coming and watching and, when you've got a packed house, it would have been good for them to see a finish," he said.

"It might have been different if we were nine down! It's a shame we couldn't play the whole game and win 4-0 but 3-0 will do."