The rewards of discipline
January 6 is as good a day as any to have an epiphany. As the Christmas decorations started coming down all around the world, England took the tinsel off their record-book - all 13 matches and 12-and-a-half months' worth of it - and prepared to go to Johannesburg with a clean slate and a few home truths. For South Africa, however, it was like the first Noel all over again. This was their first Test victory in seven attempts, and few can ever have tasted as sweet.
Until Steve Harmison's late intervention, the final day followed more or less the prescribed pattern, although thanks to an early pearler from the indefatigable Shaun Pollock, it was Geraint Jones, rather than Graham Thorpe, to whom the rearguard was entrusted. He and Ashley Giles did their bit in an 62-run stand, but it was a sad indictment of England's efforts that, Marcus Trescothick aside, every one of the top eight reached 20, but none managed even a half-century - for the second time running.
The tailenders at least got the crowds back on their feet, but for England the game was lost days ago. They have been comprehensively outbatted, outbowled and out-thought over the past five days, by a team of old sweats and young bucks that has taken its licks in this series and learned from them. England, by contrast, have trodden water ever since that facile first day at Port Elizabeth, when they were gifted seven wickets in blustery bowling conditions and assumed that the entire tour would be a doddle thereafter.
Bowling-wise, it's all come full circle for South Africa. At Potchefstroom, Charl Langeveldt and his medium-paced cronies put discipline above all other facets, as South Africa A taught England a lesson that went entirely unheeded by either side. England carried on flinging the bat, and South Africa decided instead to fight fire with fire. They got their fingers burned as a consequence, and their toes threatened with a meat-cleaver after giving away a ludicrous 35 no-balls in the first innings at Port Elizabeth.
But discipline is right back in vogue now. Langeveldt, the hero of the first innings, went unrewarded this time, but instead the spoils were shared, appropriately enough, between Pollock and Nicky Boje, who along with Jacques Kallis have been instrumental in turning this series around. Pollock had Trescothick caught at silly mid-off with his second ball yesterday, courtesy of an inventive piece of field placing from his captain, Graeme Smith, and from that moment on, the spell of Durban had been broken.
As for Boje, at the beginning of the season he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and could scarcely have imagined playing again all year, let alone putting in a performance like this. His four second-innings wickets were coupled with a first innings of 76 that gave Kallis crucial support before lifting the tail to unimagined heights.
Over the past year, England have made a habit of raising their game on the fourth day, but South Africa have bossed this match from the word go. It is the sort of food for thought that could give them indigestion, and the week's break ahead of Johannesburg cannot come soon enough. This has been a gruelling itinerary, and England's overstretched side has displayed its suffering in this game.
A final word, though, for Matthew Hoggard. He has been England's most reliable bowler on this tour, and today, his unbeaten 7 from 64 balls, with no fours or sixes, stood out on the scorecard amid a sea of unfulfilled promises. At Epiphany, England had only one wise man on show.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England on their tour of South Africa.