South Africa hold nerve to take No. 1

For South Africa’s captain, Graeme Smith, there must have been just a few flutters of doubt before the greatest triumph of his formidable reign was confirmed. He has had too many disappointments for their not to be. It was appropriate that the moment he knew victory must belong to South Africa was when Matt Prior was ninth out for 73 and he plunged for the red ball with hands like an apple catcher.

One ball later came South Africa’s victory, Steve Finn pushing at Vernon Philander and this time Jacques Kallis holding on at second slip. Philander, who until Lord’s had been largely overshadowed finished with 5 for 30 and had top-and-tailed England with each new ball in turn.

England had tried, and failed, throughout the series to overcome South Africa with tight disciplined cricket. They had been rolled by an innings at The Oval and, in the closing moments of another defeat at Lord’s, they had at least piqued them with adventure. Perhaps it carried a significant message. Perhaps it was nothing more than a last fling.

At tea, England needed 125 from 33 overs with three wickets left and the new ball 10 overs away and calculated that the difference between old ball and new had been so pronounced in this Test that those 10 overs should be met with all-out attack.

Prior and Graeme Swann added 62 from 8.4 overs, but Swann perished before the new ball, skilfully thrown out by Imran Tahir at the bowler’s end as he tried to steal a single through gully.

Prior survived Duminy’s catch in the deep when Morne Morkel overstepped and survived again when AB de Villiers narrowly missed a stumping chance off Imran Tahir, both on 67, but from the moment the new ball taken, the match shifted South Africa’s way.

It was Jonny Bairstow whose ebullient half-century from the depths of 45 for 4 who first sought a route to victory, an overgrown path strewn with pitfalls. Bairstow’s ebullience brought him 54 from 47 balls before Tahir, bowling his legspin around the wicket into the rough, scuttled one through his defences three overs into the afternoon session as he trusted to the back foot. It was an enterprising innings from a batsman who looked at a world-class South Africa attack, and what history insisted was an all-too impossible target, and looked it squarely in the eye.

Broad was in jaunty, stand-and-deliver mode, a suitable approach considering his long-standing run of failures playing in more orthodox style, nothing better than when he pulled Dale Steyn into the grandstand for six. Another hook, an excellent bouncer delivered by Kallis in the penultimate over before tea, brought his downfall as Hashim Amla took an assured catch at long leg.

Jonathan Trott was the mainstay of England’s subjugated top order, making 63 from 159 balls, an innings ended by Steyn in mid-afternoon, courtesy of a fast catch, diving to his right at second slip, by the evergreen Kallis.

Until he surfed on Bairstow’s wave, Trott was in danger of burying ever deeper into his own brain. The situation demanded that he played well out well of his comfort zone, giving the impression of attacking zeal without ever moving the score along, playing and missing regularly. Any batsman had a right to struggle against an attack of high quality in what, while the ball retained its hardness, were favourable bowling conditions. South Africa had had his measure throughout the series and it showed. But his resolve was recalibrated by the ambition of his youthful partner and life outside his comfort zone seemed a life worth living, even if only for a while.

Trott was also stung forward by a mix-up that led to the run out of James Taylor. The dismissal of Taylor had been England’s nadir, a dawdle for which Trott had to take the majority of the blame. When Trott clipped Steyn wide of mid-on, and Amla chased towards long on, the lack of running urgency suggested that both batsmen had settled for an easy three. In fact, were it not for an outfield slowed by repairs after the Olympics archery, it would have been four. The final arrow was about to plunge deep into England’s ambitions that they might square the series.

Steyn, the bowler, was so convinced all meaningful action was complete that he collected his sun hat from the umpire at the end of the over before the call of “over.” But Trott turned in invitation of a fourth. Taylor, who was running to the danger end, accepted with alacrity only for Trott to turn his back and leave Taylor as Steyn transferred to the wicketkeeper.

For England to be 16 for 2 overnight off 13 overs was no sort of platform. Once Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook had been dismissed, Trott and Ian Bell just lived for survival in expectation of a more comfortable morning. But the morning was overcast and the ball hooped around for every South Africa pace bowler in turn. Instead of easing into the task, they awoke with a start, unable to cope, shocked into action as if responding to an unwanted alarm call after a disturbed night.

Bell managed to add only a single, taking his score to 4 from 37 balls before he drove without conviction at Philander and was caught by Smith, second attempt, at first slip. When Taylor became the fourth England batsman to fall, England had scrambled 29 in 13 overs, aware of the target but unable to develop any coherent approach it.

England’s spirit persisted. Broad, made 37 from 42 balls as he dominated a sixth-wicket stand with Prior. Broad was in jaunty, stand-and-deliver mode, nothing better than when he pulled Steyn into the grandstand for six. Another hook, an excellent bouncer delivered by Kallis in the penultimate over before tea, brought his downfall as Amla took an assured catch at long leg.

Swann, ideal for such an escapade, also played with dash. He sauntered down the pitch to hoist Tahir’s legspin for six, and pulled Kallis high into the Mound Stand. Prior passed 50 by twice reverse sweeping Tahir and serenely drove Morkel over mid-on. It was fun, but in the final analysis perhaps it did not mean all that much.

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