England have won the series and in some style. South Africa may be ranked No.1 in the world but they have been emasculated by a committed England aided by a sequence of world-class performances. The score is 2-0 and with one more Test to go it could easily be 3-0, indeed it should be unless this young group of England players relax too much.
It happened in the blink of an eye. England mustered enough runs in the morning session yesterday to ensure this was an equal match. Then Stuart Broad delivered a spell of bowling that would be considered a freak if he had not already done similarly at least five times before.
He is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, an enigma wrapped in a riddle. From innocuous to devastating and sometimes back again. But when on form or when the stars are aligned, he is an exceptional match winner.
He ripped the heart out of the South African second innings with a spell of five wickets for one run in six overs – and that one run came off a dropped catch.
He was unplayable, or so it seemed. He was certainly helped by some excellent catching by Ben Stokes and James Taylor but still, 5-1 in such an important session is beyond dreams.
Dean Elgar fended at a wide one and was caught behind. Broad had worked up some pace but an opening batter would be disappointed. Stiann van Zyl was caught superbly by Stokes four overs later. So far so normal, a good bowling pitch helping a fired-up seamer. Nothing suggested the carnage that was to come. Indeed this was similar to the start of England’s first innings and that finished on 323.
Then AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma were gone and Broad had five wickets and South Africa were destroyed at 5-35. It was a force of nature, a devastating spell of cricket that changed a match and won a series. That should be remembered. In one hour on Friday Joe Root kept England competitive. In similar time Broad won a series.
It helps when everyone on your side is on the same wavelength. Stokes in support from the other end was fantastic. He pressed, probed, gave nothing away and kept the pressure on the batters throughout. Taylor at short leg was extraordinary. His catch to dismiss Amla would be worthy of a film reel of best close catches ever. It was hit hard and low, and Taylor, admittedly a couple of yards deeper than usual, scraped his hands beneath the ball for a clean catch.
It was crucial as the shot was not a false one. Taylor’s proficiency at short leg was further demonstrated when catching Dane Vilas off Steven Finn. It was a decent clip that he dived for and collected one-handed.
The batters could feel aggrieved but it was magnificent fielding that warrants the same praise as Broad’s bowling or Root’s first-innings century.
The rest of the innings was a procession. England were inexorable. It was somehow fitting that the final wicket, Faf du Plessis, was taken by Broad with a brilliant one-handed diving catch down the pitch as the ball gently lobbed off inside edge and pad.
To put Broad’s efforts in perspective, he took 6-17 in 12.1 overs. To put his career in perspective, this is his fourth-best innings figures. When he gets it right, he gets it unbelievably right. Just ask Australia or India.
His magic left England chasing 74 to win and that was achieved for the loss of three wickets. Alastair Cook got some much-needed runs but this was not a day for England’s batters. This was a day to celebrate Broad, the catching and the collective effort of a squad away from home. A day to celebrate leaders – and Broad, with Root, is one of the major ones.
What is just as exciting for England is the emergence of Stokes. Both England and South Africa have had brilliant all-rounders in Sir Ian Botham and Jacques Kallis. Stokes is the nearest comparison to either that each country has had. He is, and could be, that good.
The challenge for England now is to build on this superb success. Do not relent or rest on laurels and keep building the sum of the parts by adding players into a stable environment when necessary.
It is this kind of luxury that winners earn.