England supporters were warned there would be days like this. And not just by Dean Elgar, the South Africa captain who spoke of the potential for “egg on faces” before his side’s thumping innings victory at Lord’s, but also Brendon McCullum.
The New Zealander, high priest of the positive approach that returned four successive Test wins this summer, claimed to be at peace with the fact and in the aftermath spoke of not overreacting. But even McCullum must have been privately taken aback by a three-day defeat that, coming in just 171.5 overs, in fact lasted less than two. This was a first loss for Ben Stokes as full-time captain and threw minds back to last winter’s Ashes.
The coup de grâce was certainly similar, Jimmy Anderson channelling his inner Ollie Robinson in Hobart when he backed away and Marco Jansen lasered a yorker into the base of his stumps. With this final strike England were all out for a paltry 149 – some 16 runs fewer than their first innings – and Elgar’s players could start celebrating a handsome win set up by Anrich Nortje’s hostile three-wicket burst after lunch.
Perhaps this was Test cricket hitting back in more ways than one; not just slapping England round the chops with a wet fish after their early summer exploits but also the administrators who have pared back South Africa’s commitment to the longest format. The Proteas do not return to England in the next four-year cycle and, after a three-match series in Australia later this year, face a diet of two-match affairs.
This is such a crying shame because the tourists, leaders in the current World Test Championship, have forged a potential bowling attack for the ages. Spearheaded by Kagiso Rabada, his name now up on the honours board after five wickets in the first innings, they boast guile, craft, raw pace and a freakishly tall left-armer. And don’t forget a seasoned spinner in Keshav Maharaj, who started the charge on day three when he continued Zak Crawley’s misery and sent Ollie Pope packing on the stroke of lunch.
Granted, it was an extremely helpful toss to win, presenting England’s batters with devilish conditions before the deluge on day one. But the slump to 116 for six in the opening exchanges could still have been overcome had England been able to match the consistent threat of their guests. Instead Stokes’s bowlers looked rusty after the six-week break in red-ball cricket, wedded to his slightly prescriptive plans and, as a group of right-arm fast mediums, offered far less variety overall.
This was laid bare as South Africa amassed 326 all out for a lead of 161 runs, not least on the third morning when, after Stuart Broad had lit up the first over with a stunning one-handed catch to remove Rabada, Stokes and Matt Potts shared the second new ball yet went short. Like the evening before, when Maharaj raided 41 runs from No 8, it allowed Nortje to trowel 28 more runs on to their pile. Anderson, not known to be injured, was curiously an onlooker here before Broad eventually mopped up.
When it was England’s turn to bat again they were outfoxed by Elgar, who turned to Maharaj in just the eighth over and saw his left-arm spinner reduce the hosts to 38 for two by lunch. Bowling from the Nursery End, and thus against the slope, Maharaj profited from Crawley’s missed sweep third ball and trapped Pope on the back leg off the last ball of the session. Umpire Richard Illingworth turned down the second of these appeals but Elgar’s instant review was rewarded.
Though still 123 runs in arrears this need not have been terminal and Alex Lees, looking to atone for a first innings waft, was holding firm at the other end. But with the Lord’s crowd still digesting their tucker, South Africa’s quicks swiftly settled this contest in emphatic style, inducing a collapse of four for 29 in 53 balls that began when Lungi Ngidi produced a beautiful outswinger to Joe Root that flew into the hands of third slip.
With one of the two pillars from England’s early summer success gone, Elgar then introduced the pace of Nortje to sort out the second in Jonny Bairstow. It had been a one-sided affair on day one and not much different second time around, the Yorkshireman muscling a couple of fours before nicking a 91mph delivery that nipped away. Lees then fell for 35 in Nortje’s follow-up over, another beauty tickling the outside edge, with Ben Foakes falling to his second anaemic poke of the match two balls later.
The scoreboard reading 86 for six meant Stokes being joined by Broad and thus the start of England’s elongated tail. And through some agricultural swipes from the latter, including one hooked six behind square en route to a 29-ball 35, the pair managed to put on 55 for the seventh wicket. But soon things disintegrated once more, Broad mugged by a slower ball from Rabada and Stokes caught in the deep on 20 when, having seen Potts bowled trying to swipe Jansen, there was no other option but to swing.
Once Anderson had gone the way of Robinson in Tasmania, all that was left for the crowd to watch were the handshakes. It was 3.49pm and South Africa could begin celebrating their fifth Test victory at Lord’s since readmission and sixth overall. When they return is uncertain, sadly, but the current generation have left their mark.