England v SA, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 2nd day August 3, 2012

England face up to awkward truth

Despite putting in a much better showing, it appears England are up against a side that are better than them in discipline, application and skill

It was hard for England supporters to avoid a sinking feeling as South Africa extended their first innings past 400 at Leeds. It was not that England bowled poorly - far from it - and it was not that it has become impossible for England to level or even win this series.

It was more that England played some admirable cricket and it still was not quite good enough.

England bowled beautifully on the second morning. They did not concede a run in the first six overs and, finding just enough assistance from the surface to trouble both batsmen, built up pressure. Indeed, from two-thirds of the way through the first day, England's bowlers could not have bowled much better. And you cannot ask more from anyone than that.

It would, in these conditions, have been good enough for most rivals. It was good enough for Australia, good enough for India, good enough for West Indies and good enough for Pakistan.

But England have come up against a tougher foe here. They have come up against a side that seems able to better them in discipline, in application and in skill. They have come up against a side that, despite being put in and losing their four big batting guns relatively cheaply, still passed 400. In short, it is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that they have simply come up against a better side.

That has not happened too often in recent years. While England have been no strangers to defeat in recent months, there have always been some straws of consolation at which to clutch. Over the winter, they could - rightly or wrongly - take comfort from the fact that they were outclassed by Pakistan and, in one Test anyway, by Sri Lanka, in conditions of which they had little experience. England could console themselves with the thought that they remained formidably strong at home. And, while there have been one-off defeats to Pakistan and Australia at home, they were followed by resounding victories that suggested such results were aberrations.

Even after The Oval, there was a strange comfort in the fact that England had played so badly. The extent of the thrashing - quite colossal - could be partially mitigated by the fact that England, with bat and ball, had fallen well below their own high standards.

That is not the case here. Yes, England dropped an important catch and yes, they may well have erred with their selection. But their seamers have performed admirably after an uncertain start and their batsmen have started impressively. Yet an England win remains the least likely of the three realistic results with three days of the Test to go. Increasingly it is becoming clear that the biggest impediment England have is not selection issues, or dropped catches or disappointing batting or bowling, it is that they are up against a very good side.

But they can, just about, still win this game and therefore the series. Their best hope of winning here is to bat once, score in excess of 600 and bowl South Africa out cheaply in their second innings. It would be an unlikely scenario even without the poor weather forecast, but it is rendered even more unlikely by the fact that England went into this game without a specialist spinner. It is a decision that looked wrong at the time and was made to look even more wrong by Kevin Pietersen gaining extravagant turn before lunch on day two.

But it was the sort of selection decision that is made when flustered. And, sometime during the Oval Test, England's players, their management and their supporters had a reality check: South Africa are, almost certainly, the better side.

It is, for example, telling that South Africa can play seven frontline batsmen and still have a better-balanced attack than England. It is telling that South Africa's second-change seamer - a man with more than 12,000 Test runs - could bowl with more pace than England's opening bowlers and it is telling that while four of South Africa's top six have so far registered centuries in the series, only one of England's has done the same.

England could yet retain their No. 1 Test status even if they fail to win here. So long as they avoid defeat, victory at Lord's would be enough. But as Alviro Petersen and JP Duminy, two of the lesser lights of this excellent South Africa side, extended the tourists' first innings total here, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that England's grasp on the No. 1 ranking is slipping.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo