To focus on just how good South Africa were today, and indeed throughout this Test Match, will be going against the grain somewhat in terms of the overall focus of the collective press after England’s soft performance at Trent Bridge.
A week ago, it was South Africa’s poor showing that invited a plethora of questions regarding their selection, their attitude and their approach. Yet here we are, looking back at a game where the intensity of the team’s performance was far more in line with what we’ve come to expect from South Africa in Test Cricket over the last 18 months.
Faf Du Plessis and his team will reflect on what was almost the perfect performance today. Yes, England showed very little in the way of fight or resolve, but there was simply no let up from South Africa. No freebies or periods of play where they looked anything but in control of the game. They were wounded at Lords, but came back as a team to land a heavy blow to England today – casting the hosts in to a similarly uncertain position faced by the Proteas just over a week ago.
I was critical of Vernon Philander’s showing at Lords, but days like today show why he’s so valuable as a leader of this South African bowling unit. He is almost surgical in terms of identifying technical faults in players, before exposing them as he did with Keaton Jennings and Gary Balance. Even when Ben Stokes was advancing down the track, trying to get forward and blunt Vernon’s strengths, he adapted and ended up finding a way to win that individual battle.
It may cause surprise, but I can say quite honestly that I’ve never seen Morne Morkel bowl better than he has in this game. We played so much cricket together throughout my career, but the control he’s shown of late, evident throughout this game, has been wonderful to watch.
In my previous column, I honed in on the attitude of England’s batsmen to playing situational cricket. Having a blanket approach to how you play a Test Match innings simply doesn’t work, even if you’re the best player in the world. Today was soft, not just a display of aggressive cricket having simply backfired.
There is a pattern in England’s test performances in terms of the way they have lost their games. I thought Nasser Hussain was accurate in his criticism after today’s play, focussing on the need to stand up and at the very least show willing to get through that tough session within a game, even if it may not change the eventual outcome or the result itself.
England could take heed of some of the innings Du Plessis and Hashim Amla have played to save games for their country, and that level of application and dedication to your side’s cause still maintains its relevancy in modern Test Cricket.
South Africa out bowled England in this game, but the abject lack of fight from the hosts' batting unit will be a huge concern.
For Joe Root, tonight and tomorrow are all about not reading too much in the papers and allowing himself space to think. He’ll be hurting, but the challenge following on from today is clearing his mind and finding a way to bolster England’s batting ranks, and provoking thought from those players around him as to how they can improve ahead of The Oval.
Not everyone in that side is capable of approaching a tough situation as Root does, so the key for him and Trevor Bayliss is finding the right combination and players who are up for the fight. England will have to scrap again if South Africa put in another bowling performance like today, especially with Kagiso Rabada due to come back for Duane Olivier.
A week is a long time in sport, and England are the side now facing the questions. An amazing day and an amazing week for South Africa. A win to savour for Faf and his team.