It is right to applaud England for the cricket played across five days of rather random weather in Port Elizabeth. Unusually subtropical heat and humidity while 499 was being compiled, morphed into low grey skies, punctuated by the cool drizzle that gives England its name, while 20 wickets were taken. With the exception of some catches that Ben Stokes would expect to take pretty much every time, England's focus remained steady until the 20th South Africa wicket made merry in a partnership of 99 that was an annoyance rather than a threat. Joe Root's men can be forgiven the expectation of victory rather than its execution.
Young players excelled, the man of the moment - Stokes - carried on where he keeps leaving off, and Root had a good tactical match, made easier by the South African surrender. There are words starting with "s" that one might have applied to South African sides of yesteryear, "sensational" being foremost among them, but a surrender this was. If it was a surprise that Dom Bess' tidy offspinners shook the foundations, it beggared belief that Root's, admittedly crafty, tweakers brought the house down. Rassie van der Dussen was reduced to standing beside a practice pitch on the last morning watching Nasser Hussain's teach-in for Sky Television. Honestly, you'd have thought he had twice been a victim of Jim Laker's brilliance at Old Trafford back in 1956.
It is tough going for South African cricket right now. Cricket South Africa has no money to attract its best players at a time when the long, slow burn of transformation has moved from the frustration of departing players to the trauma of a mass exodus. From Marnus Labuschagne in Australia, Neil Wagner in New Zealand, and Dane Vilas, Morne Morkel, Kyle Abbott and Simon Harmer in England - to name just a few. Both the cream and the bench strength are heavily compromised. Of the side at St George's Park, only Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis - assuming his best form - Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada - assuming he is free to play - would be assured of a place at the Wanderers on Friday. This is not to forget Vernon Philander, but it is to point out that he was a passenger in PE.
For those wedded to the game, it was painful to watch defeat without resistance. At least Cape Town had that. In Port Elizabeth, the worst fear, that of failure, was on every face. Over after over passed by without broadside in reply to a ball spinning only one way and a field set around the bat waiting for the slightest weakness. A few blows followed by some subtle manoeuvring would have turned the tables but they came only when all was lost. Graeme Smith, the new director of cricket, was elsewhere, raising money to start afresh. One rather hoped he missed it all. Mark Boucher spoke sensibly enough, about the lack of pedigree and the need to learn on the job. The feeling was that there were more of these days to come before a corner is turned.
"The Stokes-Pope partnership of 203 brought a seismic shift to the rhythm of the series. From it came one-way traffic till the stumps were pulled. It is what the best players do: change momentum and rewrite the story"
Sport is cruel and sport is kind. The Man of the Match was Ollie Pope, the only-just-22-year-old, whose thrilling innings and brave catching at short leg won him the prize. Not since Root himself, and before him Graham Thorpe, has an English batsman emerged who so obviously has "it". There are always signs. These include the sense that the bat is an extension of the hands and arms; the head is still at the point of delivery and the body shape sound at the moment of the stroke; that the intent is to score as first option and defend at second; and that the feet move as an expression of this mind. As first hundreds go, this one matched Root's masterpiece at Headingley in 2013 and surpassed Thorpe's grit at Trent Bridge in 1993.
It is ridiculous to glorify these fellows so early but there is something ever so slightly different about Pope, as if the method and structure to his batting will not evolve but is already formed, and as if the questions about it, or anything else, are not his but ours - out of obligation to our interest rather than from any doubt about his future. This was the case with Sachin Tendulkar right from the beginning and there is no higher praise that. It is not a comparison, more an observation that such maturity in the young is a wonder.
Sunil Gavaskar was incomparable until Tendulkar came along; then Tendulkar until Virat Kohli. We might one day say something similar about Pope in the line of English batsmen. Pope is the eighth youngest to make a hundred in a list of who's who's - Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, David Gower, Alastair Cook. Each of these bar Jack Hearne went on to make at least 12 more hundreds and their pedigree brooks no argument. The greatest compliment one can pay Pope, other than the Tendulkar mention, is to say that his next innings cannot come soon enough. The Stokes-Pope partnership of 203 brought a seismic shift to the rhythm of the series. From it came one-way traffic till the stumps were pulled. It is what the best players do: change momentum and rewrite the story.
After Pope came Bess. We must remember that the ECB and Somerset gave him an extended break from the game at the end of last season. On return, a programme of support and improvement was mapped out, which included time spent with Rangana Herath and valuable days and weeks at an ECB spin camp in Mumbai with Richard Dawson. Herath was seen as a good fit: a fingerspinner from the orthodox school who relied on subtlety and skill rather than any freakish, out-of-box talent. Dawson has empathy and understanding of the hard road, and a good technical knowledge of the art form. Not initially picked in the touring party, Bess came out as cover for Jack Leach, leapfrogged Matt Parkinson, and is now part of team that has won consecutive Test matches. Nice story. He is the first spinner to take the first five wickets of an innings since Derek Underwood in Adelaide in 1974-75 - and that pitch was wet, an Underwood special. Not that England won.
Bess is smart enough to know that there is a way to go. He will need a ball that beats the outside edge, not a doosra necessarily but a good arm ball or drifter. Enthusiasm and perseverance are writ large across his game; along with optimism about the day ahead, another attractive aspect of the young. He is everything the captain likes and hopefully will retain his place in the highveldt on Friday, a place that often moves captains to the thought of five seamers.
In summary, Root marches on while the suspicion lingers that du Plessis may soon march out. It is barely possible to compare the sides in funding, infrastructure, support, depth and, right now, confidence, but South Africans do it tough better than most. du Plessis could do with winning an important toss - and PE was important - for he has now lost six on the bounce. But cricket doesn't dwell on sentiment, so bear witness to the fact that almost certainly he will win one of those do we, don't we tosses at the Wanderers and the mistake - if it so becomes - will be his own. Within its beauty, this cricket really can be a brute of a game.