It would have been one of their most extraordinary Test victories and for much of the final afternoon in Trinidad England looked as though they could pull it off. They roused themselves for a final effort to level the series, but as has been the case ever since they subsided for 51 in Jamaica, time ran out.

The maths never gave them much of a chance: bowl West Indies out in under 66 overs for less than 240, when for the rest of the series the best they'd managed was to dismiss them in 89.2 overs for 285. However, James Anderson finally gained recognition for his unstinting efforts and Graeme Swann further elevated his status, as England found a combination of pace and spin that lifted the tension to its highest point of the series.

"When we got them five-down there was enough happening to suggest it could happen," Andrew Strauss said. "Taking wickets took a little bit longer after that and we always felt we were just behind where we wanted to be in terms of the time left available. But when that eighth wicket went down there was still a chance."

Even the close finish at the Antigua Recreation Ground it didn't quite feel like this, perhaps because there had always been a belief that England would win that game. Here it was a far more fanciful notion, even after Kevin Pietersen's best innings of the series, yet suddenly the players and fans started to believe. When the penultimate ball was bowled and the victory hunt was finally halted there were England supporters nearly in tears. Sport does funny things to grown men.

Even as they contemplate the loss of the Wisden Trophy for the first time in nine years, the England team should feel they have gained a lot from this performance. This is the sort of cricket of which they are capable. The intensity of the battle brought the best out of them, although Strauss was struggling to see beyond the loss of a series.

"I'm pretty dejected really, more than anything because of the way we played today which was outstanding," he said. "Kevin Pietersen put on an incredible partnership which gave us the opportunity to get more overs at them than we might have possibly thought at the start of the day.

"To get them eight-down on a very flat wicket was an outstanding effort from our bowlers, who were tired at the end of a long series. I am very proud of the way the team played today, just dejected that we were not able to force a result."

Two wickets away from victory here and one in Antigua leaves England with endless what-ifs about this series. However, it was one crazy session in Jamaica that proved the difference. "That has ultimately cost us the series," Strauss said. "That was a freaky situation where we played badly, we weren't switched on, we got put under pressure and didn't handle it properly.

"We have to understand it is in those small margins in which Test matches are won and lost, and series are won and lost. We can't afford to be on the receiving end of those sessions."

Strauss consoled himself with the fighting spirit his team showed to lift themselves after that embarrassment. They were shocked, hurting and down after the innings defeat but the batting responded in fine style, albeit on flat surfaces, to ensure they had a chance at various stages of the remaining Tests.

"We were very low as a team in Jamaica, understandably after what happened," Strauss admitted. "The guys were low after that and we played some very good cricket for three Test matches. The fact we were not able to force a result for any of them is disappointing, but I can't fault the effort and we have learned a lot on this tour in terms of bowling on flat wickets and as a batting unit compiling big scores again, which is something we've not done for a while."

In the end, though, it was England's inability to take 20 wickets that prevented them completing a comeback, although the make-up of the attack in Trinidad showed one of the possible ways forward for the future. One of Strauss's strengths as captain is that he is realistic, something that didn't come naturally to Pietersen, and he realises that England don't possess the complete match-winner with the ball that would make his job so much easier.

"The flatness of the wickets meant neither team was able to force the issue in those final three Test matches," he said. "When you are 1-0 down in the series you want result wickets and we had three that forcing a result on was always going to be very difficult.

"We got close and we don't have a Shoaib Akhtar who can blast people out, or a Murali, so we have to be realistic enough to realise that if we're going to take wickets consistently it has to be through pressure. If you apply pressure, even on flat wickets, you will find that teams will collapse eventually."

Without or without that killer presence in the attack, the men Strauss had at his disposal almost had enough skill, willpower and determination to pull off an incredible success. That they failed will hurt for a while, but tonight Strauss and his team-mates can feel proud of their efforts to try and pull something out of nothing.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo