Last night I thought today was going to be a pretty dismal day. Today was not only the last day of the Test, but the last day of the series and the last day of Test cricket this summer. That is always a sad day and this was also going to be the day that England lost the number one ranking. I expected a relatively steady procession of English wickets until a finish sometime around tea. Instead England started the morning session with an incredibly attacking intent. Trott and Bell were playing almost a shot a ball and missing more than they were hitting. It looked like batting to a plan, but it also never really looked like coming off. The ball was still quite new and it was cloudy making it swing. If anything it was swinging too much for South Africa to really make inroads; the batsmen were frequently not even coming close. It did manage to account for Bell, however and probably should have done for Trott too. It was a phrenetic morning and it only got more chaotic when Trott ran out James Taylor as the latter went for a fourth run. It was very, very poor from Trott as the fourth was definitely on. Taylor is quick and he was the one running to the danger end, but Prior stood his ground. Taylor would certainly have beat the original throw, but had to go back almost the full length of the pitch and the relay throw from South Africa beat him. It was a very disappointing dismissal for both the obvious reason that it left England four down and still 300 runs (exactly) behind but also because Taylor was deprived of a chance to show his Test credentials ahead of the India tour. He had a good, but not world beating, Test at Headingley and only scored ten in the first innings here. He would have really liked a chance to get a big score and secure himself and I think England would have liked to get a better look at him.
At 45-4 there was a suggestion that England might be all out well before tea, if they even made it to lunch. Trott was still batting madly and Bairstow came in and started playing aggressively too. Bairstow, however, was much more restrained than Prior. He was scoring freely, but off of balls that were less likely to get him out. It wasn’t the same throwing of the bat that we were seeing from Trott and it was actually much more effective; he was scoring at better than a run a ball. Although he departed after lunch and just before Trott did as well, England kept going for it. A draw would not have got anything directly for England, but there were reasons for trying to get one. But that was clearly not what England had in mind and astonishingly they they were not out of the match until the penultimate ball of the day. Prior played a brilliant innings, Broad scored a very good 37 off 42 and Swann scored 41 off 34. They all got out going for runs and in other circumstances their dismissals would have been terrible. But in this case it was clear what England were doing and no one could have had any complaints. England actually got above the required run rate late on during the Prior-Swann partnership as they completely took Imran Tahir apart. In the end it was not enough. England fell short. But it was an astonishing effort and some absolutely thrilling entertainment for everyone watching. When England were 280-7 there still seemed a very real chance that England could do it.
In the end, no one would argue that South Africa did not deserve to win. They played the better cricket in this Test and won the big moments. They got vital runs when they needed to and kept England at bay consistently. England dropped too many catches and let South Africa off the hook with tail end runs the one time they had a real chance. Although the stat most commonly cited is the number of runs scored by South Africans after drops, I think the tail end runs were a bigger issue. There will always be a few drops and whilst it is important to come back and get others (which England did not do well) there is much less of an excuse for tail end runs. England lost by 51 runs; South Africa’s bowling quartet scored 168 runs in the match and Philander managed 96 of them himself. That is simply too many and it cost England badly in the final reckoning. Even if they had only managed to shave 30 off the eighth wicket partnership of 54 it would have made a difference to the complexion of the match as it neared the end. And if they had managed to break it promptly they might have won outright.
Not only was it a deserved victory for South Africa in the Test it was a deserved one in the series. England fought back well after the debacle at the Oval, but South Africa always just looked like the better side overall. There’s a reason for that. They have been number two for a while now and should enjoy their new position at the top. But thank you to England for making a good day out of what should have been a terrible one.