And on the Fifth Day, time did run out, and England lost the Test series 2-0 to South Africa.
‘Haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance,’ was Boycott’s prognosis at the start of the day, and with England already down to 16-2, needing a further 330 to win, very few would disagree. Except Finn, who sounded confident at the previous night’s interviews. But it’s his job to be confident, and better that than negative.
Trott and Bell came out first, and both those names suggest good things are possible. Trott has a Test average of just over 50, and Bell of just under 47; both have hit good double centuries. They began with intent but Bell fell for 4 at 34-3, bowled Philander, caught Smith. Then a poor run out when Taylor went for a fourth run. The impression was of a side with optimism, but little overall control, which about sums up the series.
Bairstow again looked reasonably comfortable, giving the loyal crowd something to cheer. He has a good physical presence at the crease, soft hands when required and the strength to dispatch the ball to the boundary – a good find who will surely rise above Taylor in the pecking order. The positive approach continued and 75 runs were added from 84 balls before lunch.
A feature of this game has been the sense that all results were possible, even with England having to break records to reach their target. But any realistic hope finally disappeared when Bairstow was bowled by Tahir for 54, with Trott following shortly afterwards for 63, bowled Steyn, caught Kallis, reducing England to 146-6.
There then followed a flourish, more for the crowd and personal pride than as a serious assault on the target, as Broad hit 37 from 42 balls. There are ways to lose, and if you must then this is the preferred method – with defiance. Swann joined in, taking England within 100 runs with a six, only falling after a brisk 41 off 34 balls leaving 60 to win with two wickets remaining. Was it still on?
No. Prior skied Morkel to deep cover point. But then the umpire called him back for a no ball, the news receiving the loudest cheer of the match, probably the game. But he finally fell for 73 and Finn then followed and they were all out for 294, losing by 51 runs, and South Africa were No.1.
They were made to work hard for their win, and they deserve to be top of the tree. They’re led well, their batting is strong and their bowling attack is anecdotally and statistically the best in the world. But the final piece in the jigsaw is Kallis, the great all-rounder of his era. Only Flintoff gets near him, but even he is not quite on his level. He gives South Africa their fifth bowler, and the team’s batting does not suffer one bit. On the contrary, he sits No.4 in the ICC rankings.
England need to work a few things out after this. They’ve only managed to win one of the last four series, and their opening partnership is misfiring. People will ask questions: is it time for Strauss to step down, for Pietersen to return, for five bowlers or for Broad to take a break? But all that’s for another time. The merry-go-round continues and both teams have an ODI series to prepare for.