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The end, when it came, was swift. England had no more fight left to give
January 17, 2010
The end, when it came, was swift. England had no more fight left to give. This was a game too far on a long, arduous tour and they surrendered their hard-earned series lead before lunch on the fourth day. They will board their 12-hour flight back to London - after another day to explore the shopping malls of Sandton - with a feeling of regret that they couldn't sustain their challenge until the last.
This match went wrong from ball one - literally. When Andrew Strauss clipped the first delivery of the game to short leg it set in motion a chain of events that would lead to them being overwhelmed by a rampant South Africa team. Graeme Smith was quick to say his team "wanted it more" and there was certainly an extent to which England conceded the inevitable.
But even in the immediate aftermath of defeat Strauss reflected on the overall performance of his team. If he'd been offered a one-day series victory and a drawn Test series two months ago, that would have given the tour more than a passing grade. However, that England had the chance to claim an even bigger share of the spoils will leave lingering thoughts of a missed opportunity
"That's a disappointing end to the tour," he said. "But you don't want to lose sight of the fact it's been a very successful tour, and I think we've made some improvements as a side over the course of the 10 weeks we've been here. We've shown a lot of resilience and character, which is probably the most important asset to have as a side."
"I said at the start of the tour, in pure cricketing terms, this would be a harder series to win than the Ashes. So to draw it 1-1 is a pretty notable achievement - after winning the one-day series as well."
It's difficult to claim that England wouldn't have deserved a series victory if it had come their way - just as the character they showed at Centurion and Cape Town doesn't deserve to be under-estimated - but the side isn't yet at that level. There are too many areas where the side are a notch below competing with the best. The batting lacks consistency and the big match-winning hundreds, while the pace bowling, while effective, doesn't strike fear into opposition.
"Three out of the four Test matches, we were very much behind the eight-ball from half-way through," Strauss said. "If you keep putting yourself in that situation, eventually the other side is going to win the game, which is what happened."
Only Paul Collingwood performed with the bat in every Test, and it was fitting that he was there until almost the bitter end, which marked an astonishing turnaround to his career. After the Ashes he was on the verge of being dropped, but he revived himself during the Champions Trophy and has carried that momentum forward. That Alastair Cook and Ian Bell came back from the brink of losing their places also speaks volume for their character, but the rest of the top order flopped.
"On this tour, only three of our batsmen had decent series. The other four didn't and you're not going to win many series if that's the case," Strauss said "I don't doubt the quality in our batting line-up - everyone has proved they're good players - but not enough of us were able to do it often enough on this tour."
It was the batting which cost them this match and there was never going to be any way back from 39 for 4 on the first morning. It was a similar surrender to that offered against Australia, at Headingley, and this time, of course, they have no chance to respond Oval-style. The very best teams can dig deeper for those crucial moments, but England have not possessed that skill since 2005.
"We're not good enough at this stage," Strauss added with typical honesty, although the statistics meant he couldn't say anything else. "We've shown resilience and that we can be a hard side to beat which is an important attribute to have as a side.
"But we're not clinical enough or consistent enough, and that's been a trait that's been in this team for quite some time. We need to look at the reasons why that is. Are we reacting to match conditions well enough? Are our game plans right?
"We need to keep improving, we all know that. But there is a lot to be excited about for the future - guys coming in and improving, someone like Ian Bell coming back into the side and playing well. That is a big bonus."
Strauss denied Smith's claims that his team had become obsessed by the fall-out to the review system controversy or that the side had run out of steam towards the end of the tour.
"We're far more frustrated by the way we played than anything that went on with the review system in this game," he said. "When we needed things to go our way, they didn't, which is often the case. When you're behind in a game and clutching at straws, it often doesn't happen the way you want it to.
"We need to take this loss on the chin and accept it for what it was - which is not a very good performance on our part, and a very good one from South Africa."
England will have to dig deep into their reserves of motivation for their next challenge, the tour of Bangladesh, but at least there are plenty of players with points to prove. Whether Strauss is on that tour, either for the whole or part of it, will be confirmed on Monday. It's a tough position for Strauss - he clearly deserves a break - but a team still striving to find its identity desperately needs his leadership.
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