FINALLY, if all too briefly, over the weekend we got the cricket that we wanted and that the Test format deserves.
The third Test at Lord’s was a magnificent example of the format: undulating, exacting, relentless combat between two outstanding teams.
The result was fully deserved, too.
South Africa were much the better team over the three Tests and so fully merit their number one status. As expected, the weakest links in their chain are pretty unimpressive. But so great are the strongest it hardly matters.
Hashim Amla was named their player of the series but it could just as easily have been Dale Steyn, top series wicket-taker and instrumental in a victory at The Oval that very few current bowlers could have forced through.
Alongside many other key contributions a special mention has to be saved for Vernon Philander, single-handedly the difference in the third Test. Where England’s tail failed to match its usual standards over the series, Philander twice got the Proteas out of a hole.
With the ball he was a model of probing consistency; in short, everything the much-vaunted England attack were supposed to do, the Cape Town native delivered. He was repeatedly referred to by television commentary as “a useful cricketer” but “a f***ing outstanding cricketer” would surely be more appropriate.
For England, there is enormous regret at the missed catches at Lord’s that undoubtedly cost them a share of the series and a hold on their number one ranking. But, over the 15 days of cricket, it would have been larceny to have claimed a draw.
A comparison between this team and that of 2010/11 is startling, particularly since it’s more or less the same players. The batsmen allowed themselves to be bullied. The home bowlers lacked the same discipline that undid Australia down under. The fielding, once immaculate, frayed at the edges and ultimately fell to pieces.
Yes, South Africa get credit for unsettling England but the hosts were not at their best. The likes of Ian Bell and Stuart Broad were groping in the dark for much of the series. The loss of Mark Boucher should have been a blow to the tourists but England rarely put them under enough pressure for his experience and nous to be missed. Andrew Strauss looks tired as both a batsman and captain and, however much he wants to continue, the ECB has to consider his position.
The key priority for South Africa is to keep thinking and progressing. In golf at the moment the world number one ranking seems to change weekly, rendering its importance marginal. The same is true in cricket: it is nice to be number one, but if toppled within the year then it really means you are one of a group of excellent teams with no single outstanding competitor.
You need to keep hold of it for a while, winning in all conditions, to make an unambiguous claim to that title. England have obviously failed in this respect.
A year ago some over-excitable types were predicting domination for a generation a la Waugh’s Australia and Lloyd’s West Indies. They sounded ridiculous at the time and stupid now.
Can the Proteas do better? They had won only three of their previous nine Test series so are hardly an irresistible force themselves. It is difficult to see India challenging (or caring), but Australia are building a fine pace attack themselves while Pakistan have the potential for greatness.
We are living through a period in which the title of best Test cricket team in the world is and will continue to be hotly contested. It is absolutely essential that the administrators do more to organise series that allow the best of the Test game to flourish.