A relentless hunger

England v South Africa, second Test, Lord's, Day 3

England's performance was streets better today. And whole housing blocks worse. Their bowlers clawed back some respect with a committed and intermittently accurate effort. Their fielders plumbed depths of incompetence that only losing sides can aspire to. They were on a hiding to nothing, and nothing is precisely what they got.

Five-hundred-and-nine runs. England's first innings deficit, like Graeme Smith's staggering batting feats, is scarcely credible. Only three teams in history have ever stooped lower, and England have never been so humbled. It is more, even, than the 504 that Wally Hammond's war-ravaged team conceded to Don Bradman and Co. at Brisbane in 1946-47.

England have no excuses. They may be carrying the odd broken bone and several bruised egos, but that is a drop in the slips compared with the turmoil that has been ripping South Africa apart lately. Until the end of the NatWest Series, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Results, disputes, bereavements. Smith has had to handle the lot. No wonder he has enjoyed himself so much when he has escaped the dressing-room.

In case anyone missed the hubris, England have lately been considering themselves the second-best team in the world. It is a precarious claim at the best of times, but today - as was so wretchedly the case in 1999 - it has been denounced as preposterous. England's list of lows in this match trail behind them like a piece of bog-roll on the sole of one's shoe. The least impressive of all is their surrendering of 64 extras. Their previous worst of 61 came at Trent Bridge in that dreadful summer of 1989, another season in which the opposition was criminally underestimated.

It was a day which belonged, absolutely irrefutably, to Smith. Before today, he had spent a mere 53 minutes of the series in the pavilion, and yet even after he was dismissed, he remained in the middle in spirit. On and on he ground, refusing to yield until every last morsel of dignity had been extracted from England's performance. South Africa's highest innings total, the 622 achieved by Ali Bacher's immortals in 1969-70, was greeted with a slap of the palms from the pavilion balcony, and even when Boeta Dippenaar failed to make his century, still Smith prolonged the agony. Given all the time England's fielders spent in the sun, it is a wonder they were only half-baked.

Comparisons with Bradman have been aired in the media, and not merely because Smith has overhauled the Don's 254 to become the highest-scoring overseas player at Lord's. His appetite for runs, and his unblinking concentration for each and every delivery, is unparalleled. He is in danger of making Michael Vaughan's cute habit of getting out in the 190s look like a grotesque character defect.

As an 11-year-old, Smith attracted praise from Omar Henry for his willingness to bat for hours on end at Henry's spin clinic in Johannesburg - not quite golf-ball-on-water-tank stuff, but not far off either. Even when Andrew Flintoff rapped him painfully on his injured finger early in the day, he was unswayed.

For Flintoff, it was yet another day of cruelly under-rewarded toil. Two dropped catches and a no-show in the slips left him with innings figures of 1 for 115, and his respective batting and bowling averages (19.82 and 52.47) continue to float away from each other like an astronaut caught in a gravitational field.

James Anderson, on the other hand, at least showed a flicker of his golden arm when he struck with his third ball of the day. Sadly it was well into the second hour of the day before he was called upon. But, his removal of Smith was a vital blow for his self-esteem. He has now dismissed him four times out of seven on this tour - and even rattled his stumps three times. But, who remembers the NatWest Series now? Certainly not Smith.

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