The easiest question for Andrew Strauss during a painful post-match presentation yesterday was the very first; whether he felt shocked at the comprehensive manner of England’s defeat. Despite the fact that England had only lost by an innings at home twice in the previous nine years – to Australia in 2009 and South Africa in 2003 – the captain had to admit that he was not surprised in the slightest. Graeme Smith’s boys had been far too good.
Understandably disorientated by bitter disappointment, the remainder of the interview with Sky Sports doyen Michael Atherton descended into a murmuring catalogue of clichés. Thankfully, Strauss stopped short of outlining an inane intention to “take the positives” into the Headingley Test at the start of August. Quite simply, there weren’t many.
Granted, the opening day of the series at The Oval was impressive. In their idiosyncratically obdurate way, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott blunted South Africa’s stellar seamers. With Kevin Pietersen looking in murderous mood during the final session, it appeared as though a huge total and essential scoreboard pressure was inevitable.
Then, as the greatest have a habit of doing, Jacques Kallis intervened. Extracting Pietersen with an innocuous short ball over leg stump, the gnarled all-rounder halted the hosts’ momentum and chiselled a small foothold, a tiny opening. As it turned out, that was all the impetus that South Africa required. They utterly dominated from there on out. It’s tough at the top.
Even without their showstopper, England would have rested easy on Thursday night safe in the knowledge that only three wickets had been surrendered. They definitely would not have expected their lauded bowlers – the most celebrated architects of their rise to the top of the ICC Test Rankings – to manage one less in more than 13 hours of trying over the next three days. It only took James Anderson ten balls to trap Alviro Peterson in front at 1-1. Rarely can a dawn have been more false.
Somewhere between the grit of Smith, the grace of Hashim Amla and the guile of Kallis, England wilted. The terrific trio of centurions offered educations in patience, shot-selection and hunger, wearing their hapless opponents into the turf relentlessly. Amla’s effort was particularly immense – an unbeaten 311 full of sumptuous timing and serene temperament. A rousing round of applause from the ever-loyal Barmy Army when Anderson beat his bat on Sunday epitomised England’s futility against the 29 year-old’s wristy excellence.
To put the Proteas’ ascendancy into context, the man whom Amla surpassed at the top of his country’s highest innings in Tests wasn’t even next in. AB de Villiers, who battered a beautiful 278 not out against Pakistan 18 months ago and is sure to be an influence in August, did not have to get his pads on.
Tim Bresnan will now make way for the pace of Steve Finn, becoming something of a scapegoat for Andy Flower’s embarrassment. That is a shame – though the Yorkshireman experienced defeat for the first time in a 15-Test career, he was willing throughout South Africa’s monumental total and showed application with bat in hand on the final day. That is far more than can be said for some of his teammates.
Taking their lead from Strauss’ brainless sweep on Sunday evening, England’s capitulation was close to abject. Ravi Bopara’s ill-judged waft outside off-stump was trumped by a frankly stupid sweep from Matthew Prior before Ian Bell offered Kallis catching practice to end a 220-ball vigil. If the game was already done and dusted by the time Graeme Swann gifted Dale Steyn his five-wicket haul, the off-spinner’s plink to cover summed up his team’s carelessness.
Three famous rearguard actions – at Cardiff against Australia in July 2009 and later that year against South Africa at Cape Town and Centurion – were instrumental in England’s march to number one. In those tense scuffles, the die-hard doggedness of Anderson, Monty Panesar, Paul Collingwood and Graham Onions shone through and instilled the squad with unerring belief as draws were salvaged from the jaws of seemingly certain defeat. Those qualities were distinctly lacking yesterday on a pitch that, bar the odd snorter from Imran Tahir, seemed rather placid.
Whoever is entrusted with a spot in the side up in Leeds, some fight simply must be relocated. Lose this series and England surrender the summit to South Africa. In a more sinister undertone, Smith has compelled two captains – Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan – into resignation on his last two visits to these shores. Another humiliation and Strauss’ critics will be keen to make it a hat-trick.
Follow Charlie Morgan on Twitter: @CharlieFelix