South Africa relentless and ruthless
In days and years to come, members of this wonderfully varied South African team will thank England for pushing them to the edge on the day of their coronation: the harder it is earned, the sweeter the victory feels. Sport can be cruel and England's inspired late charge threatened for a while to blur the differences between the sides - palpably stark over 12 out of 14 days in the series - to nothing. It would have been the most outrageous heist had England pulled it off, but it would have also been a travesty. The 2-0 in favour of South Africa was the most appropriate scoreline for the series.
How the wheel has turned. It was about this time last year that England were a picture of rapture and joy, having trounced the reigning No. 1 Test team. They had started at Lord's and ended at The Oval, gathering force and momentum as they went. The top order mounted big hundreds, the lower order blasted fifties on demand, the fast men had a ball, and England's spinner had the last laugh at The Oval. They looked commanding and complete, and set to rule the world for a while.
This time they started at The Oval and ended at Lord's, and like in 2011, they got better as the series went. The problem was that they had started with such a deficit that there was no catching up. The defeat in the opening Test was big enough, but even that did not truly reflect the true scale of their humiliation, so dragging the final Test to the last hour and then losing by 51 runs counted as a massive improvement.
The final Test provided the kind of contest he had been expecting all series, Andrew Strauss said, where one innings, one dropped catch, one good session, could decide the outcome. But even in the final Test, where England took a small first-innings lead, it was always apparent that South Africa had the match in their grasp. Throughout the game, England strained to break free, but the leash never loosened fully. South Africa were relentless and ruthless.
England's annihilation of India last year was far more comprehensive, and India were a broken side by the time the series ended, but South Africa's ascent to No. 1 must feel more satisfying, for they snatched the crown from their opponents in their own backyard. Gradually over the last few years England had acquired such mastery over their home conditions that, despite their series win here in 2008, South Africa entered this contest as slight underdogs. But by outbowling, outbatting and outsmarting England, they have left no margin for doubt. India have a chance of retribution against England this winter, but England will have to wait for three and a half years for theirs against South Africa.
The No. 1 spot in some ways is an outcome of pure mathematics. The era of undisputed supremacy went with the Australians; like the West Indians of the '70s and '80s, with them no rating system was needed. But of the recent claimants South Africa's status would seem the most legitimate.
India took the spot without ever winning a series in Australia and South Africa, and England did so without winning in the subcontinent. South Africa are the team with the most evenly distributed record in world cricket. They have lost only one Test series (of 18) in the last five years, at home to Australia in 2008-09, and though they haven't won in India in ten years, and lost to Sri Lanka the last time they played there, their record in the subcontinent has been the most impressive of all visiting teams.
More than the record, though, it is the manner in which they have been able to adapt that has distinguished them. In Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla they have two batsmen who are wonderful against spin bowling, and what separates Dale Steyn from James Anderson, who is a better swing bowler in favourable conditions, is the ability to persuade life out of slower wickets. His match-winning seven-wicket haul in Nagpur ranks among the finest performances on Indian soil in the last couple of decades.
They are led outstandingly by Graeme Smith, who, incredible as it may sound, is still getting better as a captain. As Ian Chappell pointed out quite astutely earlier during the series, perhaps having a legspinner in the ranks has brought out the aggressive streak in Smith. His declaration in the first Test, which left his side open to the possibility of having to chase a total, was refreshingly positive, and his decision to give Imran Tahir one more over on the last evening at Lord's when the new ball was available was decidedly bold and ran against given wisdom. Tahir almost rewarded Smith with a wicket. There is no doubt, unless he decides to give it up, Smith will captain South Africa in over 100 Tests, and that record will take some beating.
England's great strength during their rise to the top was the wonderful variety in their bowling. South Africa put them in the shade comfortably. The individual battles were won with almost ridiculous ease. Morne Morkel took care of Strauss, Vernon Philander hassled Alastair Cook, and Steyn came on to deal with Jonathan Trott. England's opening partnerships produced 122 runs in six innings, and three times the first wicket fell in the first two overs; the South African openers put on 307 runs and had two century partnerships.
It could be argued that England were below par - Stuart Broad was down on pace and spirit, Cook never got going after the first innings, and Trott had a middling series. In sport, though, there is also the truth that you are as good as your opponents allow you to be. Strauss came into the series with two hundreds against West Indies but ended it with a highest score of 37. His final stroke of the series was no stroke. It was a moment that captured England's despair.
That Strauss got away with the mildest of inquisitions at the post-series press conference was indicative of his stature in English cricket. But perhaps even the media was resigned to South Africa's superiority throughout the series.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo