Barring a miracle, today was the last day of England being number one in the world. As they have in most of the series, England had some very good spells with the ball. But they never got the kind of collapse they needed to keep the South Africans down to a reasonable total. Steven Finn was the best bowler for England and for the first time in the three Tests he has got this summer he really looked like fulfilling his potential. He bowled a hostile spell with the old ball in the morning and then coming on as first change with the second new ball in the afternoon he had a spell of 3-14 to give England an opening. It was an excellent demonstration of his value in a four man attack; neither Jimmy nor Broad were getting any appreciable swing and were looking innocuous. Finn, however, used his pace and height to good effect with the still hard ball. As useful as Bresnan is when he is on song, I think that variation in the attack is very important for England. Ideally both Bresnan and Finn would play, but since that does not seem likely I would go for Finn.
Finn gave England a bit of a chance; he gave them an opening. But he had to come off eventually and after tea South Africa regrouped with their tail again. JP Duminy and Vernon Philander built another frustrating partnership and by the time Philander gifted his wicket to Anderson it was already too late for England. It was the same sort of frustrating partnership that the two put on in the first innings. It wasn’t as long, but in the circumstances it was more important and although the Amla-De Villiers partnership was worth more I think there is a fair case to be made that if South Africa win it will be because of that eighth wicket partnership instead. It took the momentum and indeed the match away from England who were otherwise in with a chance.
That partnership took the game away from England, but where England all but lost it was in the 13 overs of batting before stumps. Three hundred and forty-six was always going to be a very tough ask and probably too much (it would have been a record for a Lord’s Test). But there was still some faint sense of hope that maybe, maybe on a flat wicket England could do something special. That hope lasted approximately four overs, in which time Philander (that man again) got both openers lbw. Strauss’s dismissal was particularly horrific. He completely misjudged the length of a ball and left one that hit him halfway up the pad. Michael Vaughan described it simply as the shot (lack thereof, more accurately) of a man who had too much on his plate this week and whose mind was just a bit scrambled. It definitely did seem as though the Pietersen issue had got to him. It was far less than he deserved in his hundredth Test. England were left needing another 330 to win with eight wickets in hand, but the simple expression does not do justice to how unlikely that really is. England only have ninety overs and so would have to not only bat better than they have all year, but do so quickly. There is little to no chance that tomorrow will be anything other than a formality.