Jury still out on England
Like a defendant awaiting the judgement of a jury, England nervously enter the final two days of this series with their fate in the balance
Whatever happens over the last pages of this increasingly absorbing Test series, it neither negates the progress England cricket has made in recent years or masks the deficiencies that have been highlighted in recent months. While some will seize on defeat to denounce England as the one-hit wonders of the cricket world - a team that were flattered by home conditions and weak opposition - others will seize on victory to suggest that recent reverses - such as the whitewash against Pakistan in the UAE and the thumping defeat at The Oval - were simply aberrations.
Neither conclusion would do. England are a decent side who, over the last few years, have played some impressive cricket. And there is clearly not such a margin between these teams as the result at The Oval suggested. But the evidence now proves England are far from the finished article. Indeed, the suspicion remains that, in neutral territory and over a longer series, South Africa would probably hold the edge.
It would be no disgrace should England lose to a side as good as South Africa. Their pace attack currently has no rivals in the international game, while the depth and quality of their batting line-up is daunting. Perhaps their search for a top-quality spinner goes on, but Jacques Kallis' enduring excellence as an allrounder mitigates for that and, despite their diverse backgrounds and beliefs, they have been moulded into a side with a unity of purpose. They would be, in any era and by any measurement, a very good side.
The nagging suspicion remains, however, that England have not quite done themselves justice in this series. While that, in large part, is due to the pressure applied by South Africa with the ball and with the bat, England must also accept that they have made too many self-inflicted errors. The dropped catches, particularly Alastair Cook's drop of Alviro Petersen in Leeds and Matt Prior's of Hashim Amla on the third day here, are the most obvious examples, but the England batsmen must also accept that they have surrendered their wickets too cheaply. To be dismissed by excellent bowling must be accepted, but to guide wide balls to the slips as regularly as England have done in these three Tests is infuriatingly self defeating.
Equally, if England win this game and therefore retain the No. 1 Test ranking, their failings in recent months should not be overlooked. England's problems against spin, their bowlers' lack of pace and incision and the issues with Kevin Pietersen will remain even if England are victorious. Indeed, the temptation to ignore such problems must be resisted in any circumstance. A resource as precious as Pietersen must be utilised if they are to bounce back. To scrap him aged 32, whatever his faults, would show a chronic failure of management skills.
It is true that England's period at the top of the rankings may well prove to have been brief, certainly too brief for any talk of legacy. Nor is it possible to be wildly optimistic about their immediate future bearing in mind that their next Test series is to be played in India. Things may get worse before they get better.
But it is worth reflecting for a moment on where England were not so long ago. It is worth recalling the 1999 season when England were eliminated from the World Cup they hosted even before the tournament's theme song was released. It is worth recalling the boos from England supporters that greeted the team when they collected their medals after the Test series defeat against New Zealand which saw them drift to the foot of the Test rankings. It is worth recalling the muddled selection policies that saw 29 players selected for the Ashes series of 1989, it is worth recalling the wounded men who were thrashed 5-0 in the Ashes whitewash of 2006-07, the lack of intensity that persisted in the county game before the introduction of two divisions, four-day cricket and effective academies. It is, most of all, worth recalling the days when success in English cricket was a brief interlude in a general drama of failure. The truth is, English cricket was shambolic for years.
Win, lose or draw this Test, the period between the middle of 2009 and late 2011 might still be considered a golden age for English cricket. Not just for the Test ranking, but for the World T20 success and their much-delayed improvements in ODI cricket. And, whatever the trouble ahead, English cricket can take comfort in that fact that structures now exist to identify, develop and retain talent. That the county game is producing cricketers such as Jonny Bairstow, Steven Finn, James Taylor, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes who have the talent and temperament to rebuild. That this Lord's Test may come to mark the end of an era but, whatever the hype and hyperbole of the coming days, there is some reason to suggest a new one may be around the corner.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo