The roller-coaster to success
Thrill-seekers the world over could not have come close to matching the cling-on-for-dear-life twists and turns that have been served up in this series. It is a sportswriter's cliché to talk in terms of a "roller-coaster ride", but the events of the past six weeks have transcended all theme-park safety regulations. Had England v South Africa 2004-05 been a feat of engineering, most of the passengers would have fallen out at the first deadly loop-the-loop at Durban, while even the hardiest that remained would have been crushed by the G-forces as England hurtled to 20 for 3 in the final plunge to the finish here.
But, in the end, even the greatest ride on earth has to slow as it reaches the exit barriers, and so it proved, as England edged along at barely a run an over in the final straight. There was one last jolt as Graham Thorpe's vigil ended, but by that stage the terrified onlookers among the Barmy Army had begun to find their voices again. The upshot, as had been confidently predicted after the close of the fourth day's play, was that England became only the third side to win a series in South Africa since readmission, and the first English team to win a series here for 40 years. Of all the myriad achievements that they have pulled off in the past year, this was by far the greatest. Little wonder they were a tad jittery towards the death.
It was always going to take an absolute stinker for England to let their overnight advantage slip - the sort of stinker that they have not produced since the bleak days of the mid-1990s. And, what do you know, they all but produced it as well. As a last-minute switch of momentum, it was entirely in keeping with the trend of the series, but not even the South Africans had dared to imagine it was possible yesterday. "A small glimmer of hope" was as bullish as even the irrepressible Andre Nel could allow himself to be, and that was saying something.
In hindsight (which has been the only reliable pundit all series), South Africa's lack of belief cost them dear, and today, the bulk of that blame has to be laid at the door of their senior batsman, Jacques Kallis. His third Test century of the series was as clinically excellent as each of the first two, but it was not a patch on his magnificent performance at Durban, which combined solid defensive virtues with an astonishing (and never-again-seen) burst of speed towards the end, precisely when South Africa most needed it.
He alone among South Africa's batsmen has the ability to adjust his tempo at will, but today, when a decent target could have been converted into a formidable one, Kallis refused to ignite the after-burners. Instead, it was left to the likes of Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher to flinch and flail with much intent but little groundwork, and unsurprisingly, they fell for single figures as South Africa's momentum petered out. In similar circumstances at Johannesburg, Marcus Trescothick demonstrated what can be achieved with a bit of chutzpah. His onslaught allowed England a full 60 overs to bowl South Africa out - today's limit was 44, which was always going to take a miracle.
No such criticism can be levelled at AB de Villiers, however, who cast aside the massive disappointment of missing out on his maiden century in the first innings, and instead came good second time around. His self-belief is infectious, and if it is hard to believe that he is just 20 years old, it is harder still to work out how he has managed to adapt so readily to each of the ever-changing roles that he has been called upon to play. Whether it is keeping wicket, propping up the middle order, or filling the boots of his captain as an opener, he has been up for the challenge. He is indisputably a star of the present, and even more so, of the future.
Considering the platform that Kallis and de Villiers had laid, a target of 225 in 60-odd overs should not have been too much to ask. And then, as it turns out, England really would have been in trouble. Instead England were set a juicy 185 in 44 overs. If that sounds like a familiar figure for England fans, that's because it is much the same requirement as they were set at Karachi in 2000-01 when, in the semi-darkness, Thorpe and Nasser Hussain completed a chase of 176 in 41.3 overs. The big difference on that occasion, however, had been that England were the side "going for broke", to borrow Graeme Smith's lexicon. Here, they were merely after some icing on their cake, which was not the same thing at all.
If the dangers of going for the win were self-evident, then the dangers of not going for it soon reared their ugly heads. An unhealthy burden has rested on Andrew Strauss's shoulders in this series, but the speed with which England buckled once he had been removed was as alarming as the early part of the day had been becalming. It was only to be expected. Sessions of serenity such as Kallis and de Villiers produced this morning have been few and far between. It was only right and proper that the journey had one last dramatic twist.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He has been following England's tour of South Africa.