There are only two certainties in this life. Death and taxation. But not even those givens could have been relied upon on the final day of this astonishing Test match. At the start of play, the smart money had been on the draw, given that England's overnight lead of 189 was decent but not decisive. But the even smarter money remained lodged firmly in the punters' back pockets, because if there is one thing that has been certain throughout this series, it has been uncertainty.
England have pulled off some extraordinary wins in the course of the past 12 months, but none, surely, can have rivalled this one for sustained and insatiable drama. By the end of the first innings, there were rumours circulating that England's weatherbeaten attack was on its last legs, but in this time of alleged crisis it was the magnificent Matthew Hoggard, the unstinting workhorse of the attack, who rose above his station to plough towards a famous victory.
"We'll just have to pull our socks up and get on with it," said Hoggard after the first innings, in response to the injury pile-up, and though no-one never ever doubted that he would back up with words with deeds, few could have imagined quite how effective his sock-pulling would be. In the process, he returned the best Test figures by an England bowler since ... that other indefatigable old nag, Angus Fraser, who bagged 11 in Trinidad in 1997-98.
On that occasion, however, Fraser's efforts were all in vain, largely because he lacked a man of the stature of Andrew Flintoff to back up his efforts. Though Hoggard set South Africa up for the fall, it was Flintoff's bombastic late intervention that actually made the difference between victory and another deflating Durban-style draw. The pivotal moment came in a furious over to Shaun Pollock, whom he felled with a vicious bouncer before dismissing him three balls later, seconds after Michael Vaughan had spilled one of several nervy chances at silly point. For all the defiance that the equally groggy Graeme Smith went on to provide, the tail had been exposed, and weather (and catches) permitting, it was only a matter of time.
In such incisive company as Flintoff and Steve Harmison, Hoggard has no longer had to worry about being all things to all men, and over the past 12 months, he has learned to love his lack of extreme pace. In the early stages of his career, he had been asked to step into the not-inconsiderable boots of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, and though he performed with distinction on the tours of India and New Zealand in 2001-02, by his own admission he struggled to define his role in the side. Consequently, he endured some very public crises of confidence, not least at the hands of the Sri Lankans at Lord's in 2002, as he strained for that extra yard and mislaid the attributes that made him what he was today.
Those attributes are swing, shape and an appetite for hard labour, and though it can be an unglamorous remit, his indefatigable attitude make his occasional days in the limelight all the more memorable. Until today, his two outstanding contributions had been a boomeranging new-ball spell at Christchurch in 2001-02, where he grabbed 7 for 63 with one of the finest displays of swing bowling in a generation, and last winter's emotional hat-trick in Barbados, where he bombed through the middle order and set England on their way to a series-clinching 3-0 win. Other than that, he had managed just one five-wicket haul in 36 Tests, and never before had he taken ten wickets in any first-class match.
Amid the astonishing excitement of the final two sessions, in which periods of play England took all ten opposition wickets for the first time since their Adelaide victory in 1994-95, it was easy to overlook the massive contribution that Marcus Trescothick made at the top of the order. Numbers-wise, his 180 was a fairly imposing bulk anyway, especially given the spindly contributions from the middle order, but it was this morning's murderous acceleration that gave England the time and the runs to set attacking fields. He added 58 runs for the ninth wicket with Steve Harmison, whose contribution was a meagre but undeniably mighty 3.
But Trescothick was just one of several competitors to be put in the shade by the unassuming man of the moment, and that included a pair of South African heroes who found themselves in unfamiliar roles. Herschelle Gibbs, their premier counter-attacking specialist, looked set to pull off the sort of rearguard that his detractors had despaired of him ever producing, until he was trapped lbw just two runs short of his second hundred of the match. And their concussed captain, Smith, who entered the fray at seven-down after being struck on the side of the head during yesterday's practice, and decided in his befuddlement that the match was there for the winning. Given the precedents that have been set in this series, no-one would have been remotely surprised if he had pulled off one last twist in the tale.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England's tour of South Africa.