Fortune finally turns for England
Had the figure of Father Time, the familiar weather vane that has presided over Lord's for more than 80 years, been replaced by an image of a switch-hitting Kevin Pietersen, the presence of England's missing player could hardly have loomed more obviously in advance of this game.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of dropping the man of the match from the previous Test, it was a brave decision. But it would be simplistic to state that England's best day in the field in this series to date owes anything to Pietersen's absence. It is not until England bat that any judgement can be made about the cost of his omission.
Perhaps, for those who are so inclined to find them, there were one or two signs of a renewed spirit within the England side. While they have long made a point of running to congratulate each other with a pat or a handshake after a good stop in the field, on the first day of this game they took such behaviour to a new level. At one stage Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper, ran all the way to cover to pat Ian Bell after a diving stop; at another James Anderson, the bowler, wandered over to mid on to congratulate Stuart Broad. Whether such episodes are the manifestation of improved team spirit or an attempt to convince sceptical on-lookers remains to be seen. But, at a vital stage of a vital game, it may just be relevant that England produced their best bowling of the series.
But the main difference between the first day of this game and much of the rest of the series was simply fortune. England did not bowl so much better than they had at Leeds but, for the first time, enjoyed some luck. And, ultimately, it is on results, not performances, that players and teams are judged. Just as a good batsman can nick a ball early in his innings and be on his way, so a lesser one can miss by a foot, but go on to register a century. Sometimes blind luck plays more of a rule than we care to admit.
Certainly several of South Africa's top order will reflect with regret at the large part they played in their own dismissals. Hashim Amla received a good ball but will reflect that he could have allowed Steven Finn to park his car in the gap he left between his bat and pad, Jaques Rudolph played across the turning ball and JP Duminy had to unleash his go-go Gadget arms to reach across to the ball that dismissed him. The truth is that South Africa, having batted with such application and discipline in the first two Tests of the series, showed uncharacteristic frailty.
But England's biggest stroke of fortune came in two controversial umpiring decisions. To dismiss one top-order batsman caught down the leg side might be considered fortunate, but to dismiss two in the innings - Alviro Peterson and Jacques Kallis - was extraordinary. Both might have legitimate gripes about the decision to give them out, too, with replays suggesting that the glove that the ball brushed was off the bat at the time. While sympathy for Peterson might be tempered in the knowledge that he failed to take advantage of the Decision Review System (DRS) - another stroke of luck for England - the decision of third umpire, Rod Tucker, to overrule on the scantest of evidence to adjudge Kallis out was hard to fathom. Those who distrust the DRS will feel they have more ammunition for their case, though this was surely a case of human, rather than DRS, error.
While England later claimed they would have bowled anyway, losing the toss might also have been considered a significant stroke of fortune. It allowed their bowlers use of the pitch in the narrow window when it provided some assistance and, after South Africa opted to bat in bright sunlight, the weather changed markedly and the ball began to swing. At Lord's such atmospheric conditions always play a disproportionately large role and, on a pitch that is expected to improve, Graeme Smith may come to regret his decision to bat.
"We bowled beautifully in the first session," Finn said afterwards. "We made use of the conditions but, as the day went on, the sun came out, the ball got softer and the wicket didn't do as much. But we stuck to our guns really well and we are very happy with where we are.
"We're a little bit ahead of the game. The wicket was tacky in the morning so the ball nipped around, but it didn't do much later on. As the days go on and sun bakes the wicket, there may be some help for Graeme Swann, but it's a good cricket wicket.
"Obviously wickets caught down the leg side are always a little bit fortunate. We deserved some luck like that and we did have a leg gully and we had plans for each batsmen and bowled well to our fields."
South Africa are tough to finish off, though. The loss of Mark Boucher may well have strengthened them as a batting unit and, from a position of 54 for 4 shortly before lunch, they recovered to add 208 more runs for the loss of only three more wickets in the rest of the day. Duminy, the beneficiary of Boucher's misfortune, was the one man to register a half-century and helped add 72 with Vernon Philander for the seventh-wicket. It has left the game tilted only slightly in England's favour.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo