Stop ruining cricket's schedule, you knuckleheads
Thank you, whoever (a) invented cricket, (b) thought of stringing it out over several days, (c) developed the modes of transport that enabled it to be exported to certain parts of the world, and (d) conceived the idea of countries playing against each other at sport instead of, or as well as, war. The fruits of your genius were laid out on a platter at Lord's in a dazzling Test match with the kind of thrust and counter-thrust that would have made a couple of divorcing Olympic fencers proud, a game of constantly shifting balance and momentum, with more twists and turns than an ice-skating anaconda. It was a sinuously evolving drama that must have made the likes of film-making wiz Ingmar Bergman, novel-scribbling ace Leo Tolstoy and award-winning rom-com and rom-trag playwright Willie Shakespeare slap their collective foreheads in their graves and bark: "Oh nuts. I was wasting my time making stuff up. I should have cut out the middleman and just watched a good Test match."
In the end, South Africa's consistent excellence prevailed and England's intermittent brilliance was undermined by a series of pivotal bloopers. Finn and Bairstow gave auspicious displays of their match-changing abilities, but too many of the cornerstones of England's all-conquering 2011 were too far from their best, and, as they did over the course of the series, they failed the sternest examination of their careers. South Africa held the upper hand for most of the match. England kept bouncing back up off the canvas, but each time, one of the Proteas would step in and clonk them back down again, or England would slip up and punch themselves in the face.
It was the cricket that the cricketing universe had wanted to see from two excellent teams, one ascendant after years of underachievement, one struggling to arrest its decline from its peak. England gave South Africa multiple opportunities to choke, and Smith and his men impressively failed to take any of them. The frailties they had shown in failing to win so many series from 2009 to 2011 had been laid aside.
Thus, this fascinating rivalry between England and South Africa, which has produced so many intriguing series and subplots ever since the Proteas returned to Test cricket, has completed its latest chapter. It will now be taken to a barn, knocked spark out with a crowbar, and locked in forced hibernation in a cryogenic chamber for three and a quarter years. They will not meet in the Test arena until 2015-16. So, and forgive me for repeating a point made in another recent blog, between January 2010 and November 2015, two of the world's leading Test teams will have faced each other in a grand total of three Test matches. If this is what the doctor ordered to aid the long-term health of the longest and greatest format of the game, then cricket needs to ask to see that doctor's medical certificates. He is clearly an unqualified quack.
When leaving Lord's yesterday, I did not overhear a single person saying, "Yes, three Tests was just right for this series. Absolutely bang on the banana. Always leave them wanting more, that's what they say in showbiz. Besides, another Test could really undercut the delicate specialness of that ODI series."
Thus, yet another fascinating contest has been sawn off prematurely by knuckle-headed scheduling (is there anyone in the known universe who genuinely cares what happens in the forthcoming three weeks of limited-over matches?) (and I mean "genuinely", not "slightly, and temporarily, because it is a fun day out").
A quick message to whoever is responsible for scheduling Test cricket: please stop ruining it.
On the evidence of the swathe of fascinating, fluctuating Tests between various countries over the last year, the "product" is in not merely rude health, it is directly insulting health. Stop sedating it and telling it to mind its language. I know that this plea, were it to be delivered directly to those concerned, would fall not on deaf ears but on a cash register with no ears, but still. The point stands.
● The evidence of this series makes South Africa's struggles to win a series over recent years seem even more baffling. The belated admission to the Test team of Vernon Philander, the Emeritus Professor of Nibble at the University Of Bowl-Craft, has upgraded a series-drawing team into a series-winning one. His insistently probing cross-examination with the ball helped restrain England in the first two Tests, and scuppered them at Lord's.
They are not yet complete as a team. Tahir has been marginal, they need a wicketkeeper to allow de Villiers' batting to flourish, and Rudolph and Duminy have both been useful without fully establishing themselves as the long-term middle order. But they have four supreme batsmen and three top-class seamers, who form a perfectly balanced combination (plus Kallis, who has taken more than seven wickets in a series only once since 2007, but retains the capacity to make vital breakthroughs).
They have reached their merited No. 1 ranking on the basis of a potent eight months culminating in this magnificent series triumph, but should have the capacity to remain there for some time. Of course, those same words could have been written this time last year about Strauss' England, whose nine months of cricketing perfection from the Boxing Day Test of 2010 to the end of last summer's series with India melted in the desert against Pakistan and has now fully evaporated in the English summer.
So nothing is certain. South Africa face some of the same challenges that Strauss' team have faced. Not all of them. It seems unlikely that Hashim Amla will be dropped from the team for going bonkers in a press conference and then abusing his own captain. He does not strike the neutral observer as that kind of man. Maybe Kallis will do so. Just to see the looks on people's faces.
● It was regrettable that Matt Prior, who has been superb with gloves and bat for England through their period of success and is currently one of the most influential Test cricketers in the world, should have been responsible for three critical errors in this match. He made eight dismissals, including some excellent catches, and become just the second England wicketkeeper to execute two stumpings in a Test since 1995. He scored 100 runs, 73 of them in a supremely paced second innings that showcased his trademark cocktail of classical style and modern innovation, and took England if not to the brink of victory, then certainly to the brink of the brink of victory, strapping on their brinking boots ready for a final assault on the brink.
Ultimately, however, his few errors proved more influential to the result than his several successes. In the first innings, he batted fluently at the close of the first day to help consolidate Bell's and Bairstow's recovery, then cautiously on the second morning in the build-up to the new ball. England were 221 for 5, 88 behind, on even terms with South Africa. If they could negotiate the new ball, they would be in control. Prior saw that already sizeable "if", injected it with a growth hormone, and watched it balloon alarmingly like a desiccated sumo wrestler in a jacuzzi. Philander took the shiny new conker. First ball, Prior played a loose drive and edged to slip. England never came as close to parity again in the rest of the match.
Prior was soon chuntering "oops" to himself again, when he dropped a reasonably tricky leg-side chance off Amla when he had scored 2. It would have made South Africa 49 for 2. As it was, they soon became 50 for 2 when Petersen was out two balls later. But Amla was still there, and Amla is one of the finest and most merciless batsmen of the 21st century. He scored 121 runs with ice-cold silken precision. England, again, never came as close to parity again in the rest of the match.
Finally, in that frenetic, dizzying final afternoon, Prior and Swann had Frankensteined England's seemingly moribund challenge back to life with electrified flamboyance against the old ball. They had plundered 41 from the previous four overs, 60 off the last seven. The impending new ball still gave the Proteas the likelihood of victory, but England needed only 64 more with two batsmen in rampant form. Could they combine chaos with calmness?
Prior then called Swann through for a single which, with hindsight, carried a similar level of risk as jumping into a lion enclosure dressed in a pantomime zebra outfit - not inevitably disastrous but with minimal prospect of safety. Swann was run out. For the third time in the match, Prior hunched over in self-recrimination. Inevitably, England never came anywhere near to parity again in the final remnants of the match.
The contrasting fortunes of England's gloveman are highlighted by the small piece of history that accompanied him as he trudged off the field at Lord's - he is the first wicketkeeper to make eight dismissals and score 100 runs in a Test and end up on the losing side.
It was a Test match of countless turning points, but these three were amongst the swivelliest. Prior played well in this match, brilliantly yesterday. England would not have come close to victory without him. They might have won it but for his mistakes. He helped show cricket in all its magnificence. But he put himself at the mercy of its intermittent cruelty.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer