Charged with the improbable prospect of nullifying the touring attack for 98 overs on the fifth day, the home side bristled with determination only for it to end in disappointment in front of a 23,500 sell-out in Manchester.
Australia finally dismissed them for 197 at 6.15pm, with a 185-run win giving them an unassailable 2-1 lead that means they will retain the urn regardless of events at The Oval next week.
That makes Joe Root the first England captain not to see off the old enemy on home soil since Nasser Hussain in 2001, and means outgoing head coach Trevor Bayliss will end his World Cup-winning reign on a sour note in the longer format.
Australia celebrated joyously on the outfield when Josh Hazlewood claimed the decisive lbw against Craig Overton, but they had been made to wait for their party by a gutsy batting performance.
Overton was one of three batsmen to face 100 or more deliveries on the day, joining Joe Denly (53) and Jos Buttler (34), but their collective efforts were not enough to conjure a sequel to Ben Stokes’ miracle of Headingley last time out.
England looked down and out when their last specialist batsman, Buttler, departed at 4.50pm but Overton and Jack Leach, reprising his unlikely role from Leeds, delayed Australia for more than an hour as memories of past rearguards came vividly to life.
It was not be, Leach unpicked by part-time leg-spinner Marnus Labuschagne in a bold gambit and Overton trapped in front by Hazlewood in the 92nd over.
The hosts started the day on 18-2, with nine players ready to take up the fight while Rory Burns and Root were reduced to watching briefs following their ducks on Saturday evening.
The pair had shared England’s biggest stand of the series in the first innings but in their stead it fell to Jason Roy and Denly to set the tone.
Denly rode a couple of lbw shouts early on and Roy drew the first raucous cheer of the day when he turned the ball off his hip for four.
But, in reality, runs were a side issue. Denly might have needed a gentle reminder of that when he chased a wide one from Mitchell Starc and saw a wild edge soar over second slip, and again when he slog-swept Nathan Lyon just short of the man at deep mid-wicket.
He learned those lessons well, topping up his score as he went, and by the time Roy stroked the ball calmly to the extra-cover boundary an hour had passed.
Another 20 minutes ticked by before Australia finally made their first breakthrough, Pat Cummins calling on his world number one credentials with one that snaked between Roy’s bat and pad to smash the stumps.
As he departed, for a battling 31, Stokes took his place to a predictable hero’s welcome. The all-rounder was all out of magic this time, lingering just 17 balls before Cummins slanted one across, nipped it back in and grazed the inside edge.
Umpire Marais Erasmus was unsure but Stokes walked and at lunch the score was 87 for four, with England’s patron saint of lost causes back in the pavilion for just one.
Denly restarted on 48 and, though the team total was an irrelevance, a half-century was an important personal milestone. A punch-down the ground off Cummins got him there, for the third time in seven Tests, but his race was almost run.
Lyon had bowled 47 wicketless overs in the match when he got one to turn and bounce, forcing Denly back and nudging the glove on its way to short-leg. Jonny Bairstow was next up, joining Buttler for little more than an hour before Starc returned after a restorative drinks break. His first ball was fast, angling in from round the wicket and destined for Bairstow’s leg stump.
Number eight Overton proved a doughty foil for Buttler but, when Australia persuaded the umpires to replace a mis-shapen ball, its replacement started swinging prodigiously.
The difficulty level ramped up a notch and Buttler eventually succumbed, offering no stroke as Hazlewood got one to hoop through the air and peg back off stump.
Jofra Archer came and went, lbw to a Lyon shooter, bringing Leach to the crease with almost 30 overs left. It looked to be over but there was still time for drama as the Somerset duo bravely fended their way through as the ball zipped intermittently past their edges or into their bodies.
Time was ticking when, after seeing his senior men come up short, Tim Paine brought on Labuschagne with just 16 overs remaining - a hunch, a gamble or both. Either way, it struck gold as his fifth delivery turned and bounced at Leach, who fended to Matthew Wade at short leg.
It had taken 66 minutes and 51 balls, but Leach was finally gone. Ten balls later, the matter was settled, Hazlewood getting the better of Overton after just under three hours and 21 runs.
England’s hopes of getting their hands on the urn had evaporated but not without a scrap worthy of the contest, leaving pride and a drawn series still to play for in south London.
“I’ve been here a few times when things haven’t quite gone our way or we haven’t performed to the best of our ability,” said Australia’s Steve Smith.
“To come back and get the urn here was always one to tick off my bucket list. There’s another game left and we’d love to win it but to know it’s coming home is extremely satisfying.
“The boys were getting a bit tight out there but with the new ball we thought we’d get enough chances. They (England) fought incredibly hard but fortunately the boys got the job done.”