Australia retained the Ashes in England for the first time since 2001 but needed almost all of a tense final day in Manchester to win the fourth Test.
Chasing a never-likely 383 for victory, England was still fighting for a draw in the final hour of play on a slow but gripping day of Test cricket at Old Trafford.
The quality of Australia’s pace attack eventually wore the hosts down, though, with Josh Hazlewood (2-31) taking the final wicket when he trapped Craig Overton lbw for 21.
The initial celebrations were cut short by Overton’s review but replays confirmed that the decision was correct, sparking wild scenes of jubilation among the Australian players.
England’s tally of 197, that took 91.3 overs to compile, saw Australia post a 185-run victory.
But while that victory margin looks convincing, there were moments on the final day that suggested an English miracle may have been on the cards.
Overton and Jack Leach (12) added 23 runs in a ninth wicket partnership that lasted for more than an hour as tension built inside a boisterous home crowd.
The England fans cheered dot balls throughout that partnership and roared at the end of each over as, just two weeks on from Ben Stokes’ heroics at Headingley, they dreamed of claiming a remarkable draw.
It was then that Tim Paine, criticised in some quarters for his captaincy in the Leeds loss, gambled on the part-time legspin of Marnus Labuschagne.
Labuschagne had bowled three largely ineffectual overs up until that point but Paine decided to mix things up and his braveness was rewarded, Leach only able to fend a delivery that reared up out of the rough to Matthew Wade for 12.
The celebration was not one you would associate with the dismissal of a No.10 but this was different. The Ashes were on the line.
And less than two overs later, Hazlewood finished the job, ending Overton’s 105-ball knock with an excellent delivery that nipped back in and struck him on the pads.
The review only delayed the inevitable. Australia had, finally, retained the Ashes on foreign soil again.
Australia now leads the five-Test series 2-1 with one match, that begins on Thursday at The Oval, still to play. Even if England win that Test, it could not win the series, meaning cricket’s famous urn stays with Australia.
“I’m pretty pumped. This team has been through a lot in the last 12, 18 months,” Paine said afterwards.
“The character we’ve shown shows a lot about the quality of the people.
“It’s been an unbelievable series … I was really proud, today, the way the bowlers kept sticking at it.”
Paine reserved special praise for Smith, who won the man-of-the-match award for brilliant scores of 211 and 82.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen, there’s no doubt about it,” he added.
Smith said it was an “incredibly special feeling” to know the Ashes urn was “coming home”.
“It’s been a good series – I’ve really enjoyed my time in the middle,” he said.
“I’ve worked very hard … I want to be the one out there in the middle doing the job for the team. I love batting!”
Smith also wanted to make mention of Paine’s effort in captaining the team since last year’s ball-tampering saga and hailed his “courage” for the ultimately successful Labuschagne roll of the dice.
“He has done a terrific job, not just in this series, the last 12, 18 months,” Smith said.
“Tim’s been exceptional around the group and he is leading the men extremely well.”
Smith is surely set for man of the series honours, too, given his 671 runs in three Tests.
England captain Joe Root said his side showed “great character” on the final day of the fourth Test and that not being able to win the Ashes back was “hard to take”.
Root had nothing to do on day five after he was bowled for a golden duck by Pat Cummins (4-43) late on Saturday (local time).
England resumed at 2-18 and the early signs were encouraging for the hosts as Joe Denly (53) and Jason Roy (31) showed signs of resistance.
It took a big inswinger from Cummins to remove Roy, clean bowled, and the same man got Stokes caught behind for just one.
That meant Cummins had all four wickets when England got to lunch at 4-87 and Denly reached a deserved half-century before he became the first victim of Nathan Lyon (2-51).
Mitchell Starc (1-46) then trapped Jonny Bairstow lbw for 25 but Jos Buttler (34) and Overton proved hard to remove as England reached tea at 6-166.
That meant Australia needed four wickets in the last session and Hazlewood produced an outstanding delivery to bowl Buttler who shouldered arms at a ball that came back in sharply.
Lyon then dismissed Jofra Archer for just one, bringing Overton and Leach together.
It was a stubborn, defiant partnership that, for a while, threatened to spoil Australia’s party.
But there was only team celebrating at the end. It was Paine’s Australia.