James Lawton: Beauty and the beast far too superior
South Africa didn’t rescue this controversial and often brilliant Test series. They returned it, with shuddering force, to reality.
It is one that England now know better insists the point of the most superior form of the game is not to measure bursts of form, and perhaps good fortune, but to probe deeply into the talent and the character of a team.
When the probing, just over three storm-battered days of it marked most dramatically by the emergence of the kind of authentically intimidating fast-bowling partnership forged here by Dale Steyn, the beauty, and Morne Morkel, the gangling beast, that has always been such a decisive arm of every potentially great team, was over, we also knew something new and irrefutable about Ashes-winning England.
It was that they remain a long stretch of high veldt highveld away from being genuine contenders for world number one status.
Most worrying of all is the sense that the group of players who were so recently regarded as the cornerstones of such ambition all critically failed to prove they had moved to another competitive level.
The list, in brutal truth, is disturbingly long. It includes captain Andrew Strauss, the former batting star Kevin Pietersen, his apparently nerveless fellow South African defector Jonathan Trott, the beautifully talented Ian Bell — and the entire pace attack.
In the speed and swing department Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom were rarely less than dwarfed. You looked at Steyn and Morkel, and yesterday morning even their 20-year-old assistant playing his first Test, Wayne Parnell, and knew with each delivery that there were devastating possibilities. Their English counterparts never began to match such a consistent threat.
England came here leading 1-0 after dredging up draws in the first and third Tests in which they were dominated in all but the concession of their 20th wicket. However, if they could hold on, by any means, they could have claimed an extraordinary result against the world’s second-ranked nation.
But to do it they had to show more nerve and fight than they had ever shown before and if you took away the proven stoicism of Paul Collingwood there simply wasn’t enough of it around.
Indeed that vital quality seemed to be heaped almost exclusively on the shoulders of the man from County Durham and when he left, last but one, it was a telling comment on the pressure he had been required to absorb that it was to a long hop from the part-time spinner JP Duminy.
Even Collingwood, for whom having his back to the wall is pretty much the foetal position, had been disoriented by the irresolution around him.
He looked up wistfully at the big screen which replayed the moment of breakdown, shook his head and consigned his 71 runs to a rubbish pile of futility. He deserved better, and there was a candid acceptance of this by Strauss who agreed that at the climactic phase of the series he and his team had fallen badly short.
There was also, of course, the reproach of history. Fifteen years earlier Mike Atherton had batted nearly 11 hours on this same ground, defying the venom of the great paceman Allan Donald but then, unlike Collingwood, Atherton had found himself in the company of a similar spirit, the obdurate eccentric Jack Russell.
Such companionship is vital in any rearguard action and Collingwood, in the end, sadly settled to an inevitable fate.
It didn’t help that the final collapse came in the wake of a rambling diatribe by the chairman of the England Cricket Board, Giles Clarke, who saw in the survival of South African captain Graeme Smith against English claims that he had fallen to the finest of edges a complete breakdown in the new decision review system. Of course it wasn’t.
England made a banquet of the Smith incident – and nothing much more than a discarded scrap of their need to get on with the job. It was evidence of a psychological frailty that, in the end, undermined an effort to hold off a team convinced of its right to the victory which would prevent a two-month battle sliding into travesty.
Pietersen is England’s greatest casualty, certainly in that in his reputation he has had most to lose. Yesterday morning, though, he was back where he started, victim of an airy shot played against a wide delivery from the young but precocious Parnell.
It was a prime symbol of England’s failure here, one that makes it doubly disturbing that Strauss, a man still just one year into his huge and career-defining assignment, is stepping down from the tour to Bangladesh.
Apparently he needs a rest, which is unfortunate because his team require something quite different. It cries out, surely, for the leadership and concentration of mind which simply went missing these last few days.