'A tough defeat to accept'
Graeme Smith pinned the blame for South Africa's fourth-Test failings on his middle-order batsmen, after England, led admirably by Matthew Hoggard, had bundled them out for 247 in a mere 59.3 overs. Though they started the day as the only side with a realistic chance of victory, they finished it with a 2-1 deficit, and the very real prospect of only their third home series defeat since readmission to Test cricket.
"The middle-order needs to have a hard look at itself," said a shell-shocked Smith, whose battling 67 not out came too late in the match to salvage the situation. "We gave away too many quick wickets. Any bowling attack needs momentum, and England's was tired and sore [coming into the day's play]. But the more sniffs we gave them, the more their injuries seemed to go away."
Smith himself was unable to take his usual place at the top of the order, after being felled by his coach Ray Jennings in a fielding accident on the fourth morning. Instead, AB de Villiers was promoted to open alongside Herschelle Gibbs, but managed just 3 from 13 balls as South Africa slumped to 18 for 3.
"It was just one place messed up, "said Smith. "It's up to individuals to shoulder the blame. Several guys have made good starts to the series, but they need to turn that into a good run. This is a tough defeat to accept, because we did so well throughout the Test. But we tend to get teams under pressure, and then take our finger off the button. We needed to bat out three-and-a-half hours today, and we couldn't do it."
Smith, however, acknowledged the contributions made by Hoggard and Marcus Trescothick, who added 79 runs to his overnight 101 to give England the perfect start to the day. "Marcus took game to us," said Smith. "He played superbly, and all credit to Hoggard as well. He bowled superbly, put ball in the right areas with a bit of swing, and made the wicket look like it was doing something. But we didn't start well with the bat, and there wasn't enough hardness in the middle order. A few extra overs of graft would have done it.
"It's disappointing to lose at home," added Smith, "but there's one Test left, and we aim to regroup in three days and bounce back, because this series is similar to the one in England last year. Every session has been different, and though we need to lift our game in certain aspects, we've left our marker in some ways as well."
Jennings, South Africa's coach, echoed Smith's sentiments about the batting, but added his own praise for the manner in which Hoggard had carried England's attack. "He's been like that the whole series," said Jennings. "I can't remember a spell where he hasn't put his heart into it. He's shown a lot of passion and energy, he's put the ball in the right areas, and at the end of day, I take my hat off to him. He has a desire to bowl, and this shows the effort."
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England's tour of South Africa.