Strauss savours a year-capping victory
As the crow flies it is almost 8000 miles between Kingston in Jamaica and Durban, but in every sense for England they have proved worlds apart. A year that began amid turmoil with a collapse for 51 all out in one of their most humiliating defeats has ended with of one their most impressive victories. Not many teams beat South Africa on home soil, even fewer do it by an innings an hour into the final day.
With Andrew Strauss at the helm, and Andy Flower exuding calm control, the players will be kept firmly grounded in the days to come. This job is only half done. England didn't come here to win a Test, they came to win a series, but this will rightly be acknowledged as a victory of the highest order.
"We've come a long way in the last 12 months, and that's all credit to the way the guys have embraced changes," Strauss said. "We've all got behind each other and enjoyed each other's success and have finished the year on a real high. I don't think most people would have thought we'd win the Ashes and then come here and do so well so far. We've been able to do it, because we stick together through the tough times."
Everything about England was impressive. From the early new-ball wickets on the first day, to the way they built pressure as Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis threatened to produce a commanding total. Then there was a unyielding batting display, with contrasting but complementary contributions all through the order, before the match cumulated in a destructive second-innings bowling effort from Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad.
The only time England appeared momentarily rudderless was when Dale Steyn cut loose for his 47 at No. 10, but the ledger was soon balanced by Strauss's own rollicking start. Strauss has been through quite a year. He wasn't even captain when it started and then only took the job because there wasn't really anyone else available. Now he has the chance to etch his name among England's finest leaders.
"Away from home, that is as emphatic a victory as I can remember," he said. "For pretty much the whole Test match, we did exactly what we wanted to do. They never got away from us, and we always felt it was under control.
"Getting that big score set it up for us to bowl them out in the fourth innings. I don't think we felt it was going to be as easy as it was. But all credit to the way Broady and Swanny bowled last night. But we know we've still got a lot of hard work to do. As captain, you need to lead by example on that."
There is no doubt that Strauss will do just that. As he did after the Ashes, when he called for calm amid the euphoria and demanded it be used as a stepping stone for the future, he was quick to focus on the task to come in South Africa.
"It feels wrong to dampen things down after a win like this but we still have a lot of work to do," he said. "We lost heavily at Headingley last year against the Aussies - and we know in the next Test what happened here counts for nothing.
"But we are 1-0 up with two to play, and the way we won today gives us a lot of confidence going to Cape Town. South Africa will come back hard at us, because they're a proud team and have some very good players."
Importantly, though, this victory shows that England are finding a way of winning Tests with a new balance of team. The Ashes success was secured with Andrew Flintoff still in the side - albeit on one leg most of the time - and when this tour began the huge debate revolved around which suit England would strengthen (and which they would weaken) to compensate for his absence.
They went down the six-batsmen route, despite early suggestions Luke Wright was in the running for a debut, and it has paid off handsomely with Ian Bell making 140, arguably his best Test innings to date. It won't always work, for example in the subcontinent where conditions may demand two spinners, but this Durban pitch was fairly placid yet England comfortably took the 20 wickets required. Nine of those went to Swann, their bowler of the year, and the second leading wicket-taker in the world for 2009.
"It's like all these things, if you win it's right decision if you don't it's the wrong decision," Strauss said. "You pick the side you feel will win the Test match and I felt a valuable contribution from No. 6 on this wicket would be important, and so it proved.
"Belly's hundred got us in a position where South Africa were no longer in the game and our bowlers could attack. I must say the four-bowler option works a lot better when your spinner is contributing in the first innings, which has made life a lot easier for us."
It was one of those matches a captain dreams about, where selection, planning and on-field tactics all work in sync. Strauss's year is littered with notable achievements, some more noticeable than others, but this victory has put him one win away from starting 2010 with a triumph that would surpass everything else. Even the Ashes.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo