Perfect day for Pietersen
Kevin Pietersen toasted the best day of his life after his maiden Test hundred sealed England's first Ashes success for 18 years.
South African-born Pietersen struck 158 to defy Australia at the Oval on another day of fraught nerves as time ran out on the tourists' victory bid.
The 25-year-old's contribution put England out of reach during a final session which eventually saw Michael Vaughan's men bowled out for 335.
"I would be stupid to say I have had a better day," said Pietersen. "That is the best innings I will ever play, with all the circumstances it would be difficult to beat that.
"It is remarkable to be part of this England team, everybody loves being in each other's company. The whole summer has been fantastic."
The whole series hung in the balance with half England's side out before lunch, with Shane Warne in his pomp on the way to a 12-wicket match haul and Brett Lee steaming in from the pavilion.
Three times in that last over before the interval Lee struck him, one blow to the ribs causing a stoppage.
It was a spell which catalysed England's escape from danger, as Pietersen returned after the interval to launch a counter-attack including 16 runs in one Lee over.
"When he bowled that very quick over before lunch, I knew it was me or him," Pietersen said. "He came in and bowled some really quick balls, the only reason I went down to rub my ribs was so that Shane did not bowl another over before lunch - I was a drama queen for two minutes.
"From then I backed myself to be positive, we needed runs and there was no point in hanging around.
"The positive way was the way forward. Fortunately it went in my favour."
By the time Glenn McGrath knocked back his off-stump in the third over with the new ball, Pietersen had hit seven sixes and 15 fours.
As he walked off to a standing ovation, Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne congratulated his Hampshire team-mate on his outstanding effort.
"It was a special moment when he ran over to me," Pietersen said. "He just said to me 'take this moment in, you have played a special innings, make sure you take it in and savour this, acknowledge all the people'. I got a lump in my throat."
Warne, who became the most successful bowler against England in Test history as he went past Dennis Lillee's 167 victims and ended the series with 40 wickets in all, might have been in a different mood had he caught a straightforward slip chance off the bowling of Lee when Pietersen was on just 15.
It was a moment which proved pivotal with that opportunity much easier than drops by Matthew Hayden and Shaun Tait but Pietersen said: "I don't owe Shane anything, I have dropped six catches and nobody bought me a beer."
Pietersen's English mother Penny was among the 23,000 people shoehorned into the ground to witness the conclusion of the most exciting series in Test history.
It was also a perfect response to criticism of his earring-clad, `bling' image which surfaced in the build-up to the contest.
He added: "I don't have to prove anything to anybody. The way I look has nothing to do with me as a cricketer."
Having gone 1-0 down at Lord's in the first Test, England completed one of the great turnarounds to dominate the series thereafter.
They have now won six series on the trot but remain second in the official International Cricket Council behind the Australians.
All-rounder Andrew Flintoff was as integral as anyone in achieving the fightback and the darling of the home crowd was decorated with the inaugural Compton-Miller medal as a result.
The relief around the ground at 6.15pm when umpires Rudi Koertzen and Billy Bowden pulled out the stumps to confirm the stalemate was tangible.
England captain Michael Vaughan admitted he could not envisage a series like it ever taking place again.
"The response the public has given us throughout the whole summer means I am not too sure cricket will ever get to the same level again," said Vaughan.
"I hope it does and I play in many more like this but it is unlikely.
"It has been an extraordinary team effort and I am just the lucky one who picked up the urn."
World cricket is yet to see a change in its power base, however, with Vaughan suggesting Australia are rightfully the top dogs.
"They have won home and away for a number of years and we have yet to win on the subcontinent as a side. That challenge comes this winter in India and Pakistan," Vaughan said.
Vaughan's opposite number Ricky Ponting concurred that his side were still the best on the planet but admitted England thoroughly deserved a first win in nine campaigns against Australia.
"England fully deserved their result, the truth is they outplayed us for all four Tests after the first one," said Ponting.
"There are not too many regrets for us but we have not played our best cricket, mainly because England have not allowed us to.
"The chances were there for us but we could not take them; if you went into our dressing room the boys would tell you we had lost the Ashes but England will tell you they won them.
"But I would still rank England second, we are regarded number one in the world for what we have achieved over a long period of time."
Ponting returns down under as the first Aussie captain to have lost to England since Allan Border but expects to keep his post despite the 2-1 defeat.
"I can't say I expect it to be a great reception for us when we arrive," he added. "All the guys have give it their best shot, we have just not played well.
"Speculation about my future has already started, I cannot help that, people have their opinions.
"No. I don't feel obliged to reconsider my position."