Luck with the coin granted England an advantage, but Michael Vaughan, who is perhaps trying a bit too hard with captaincy since he has no runs to show, spurned it © Getty Images

And so England's World Cup campaign ended with an embarrassment that was perhaps appropriate. Indeed, it would have been a travesty if they had gone any further, for they had furnished no evidence so far that they belonged. The match was billed as a quarter-final, the first contest of serious significance of this tepid World Cup, but England proved wholesomely unworthy. South Africa have been the hot-and-cold team of the tournament, but few would argue that the four best teams in the show will now feature in the semi-final, even if it means that the remaining Super Eight matches now bear only academic interest.

Even without hindsight it could have been said that England blew their best chance before a ball had been bowled. The toss was always going to be crucial considering that the Kensington Oval provides the liveliest pitch in the Caribbean at the moment, and the best possible opportunity to bowl first if you have the personnel to exploit it. England should have known, for they bowled in the morning here against Bangladesh.

Luck with the coin granted them an advantage, but Michael Vaughan, perhaps trying a bit too hard with captaincy since he has no runs to show, spurned it. He was perhaps persuaded by the fact that his batsmen struggled here in the second innings against the army of Bangladeshi left-arm spinners. Yes, the pitch grew noticeably slow in the second part, but he missed the point that his batsmen batted badly. The Bangladeshis didn't turn the ball sharply and Mohammed Rafique got his wickets with the balls that straightened with the arm. And vitally, South Africa didn't have a spinner.

By choosing to bat, Vaughan embraced double jeopardy. He denied his bowlers, the only ones who could have won England the match, their best possible chance to restrict South Africa. And he exposed his brittle batting line-up to a pack of South African quick bowlers in conditions that suited them best. Graeme Smith said after the match that he would have bowled.

The first few overs set the tone of the match. England batted to save their lives - the plan apparently had been to see off the first ten and score off the last 30 - and the South African new-ball bowlers were all over them. The only serious attempt at run-making in this period came from Ian Bell, who walked down the pitch to clip Charl Langeveldt behind midwicket.

The South African opening bowlers were magnificent, and none more than the seemingly ageless Shaun Pollock. His return to top gear has been one of the biggest comeback stories in recent years for he had looked spent a couple of seasons ago. He is still well below what can be described as fast, but the nip is back in his bowling, and he hits the awkward length instantly. After being used as the first, sometimes second, change by his sometimes baffling captain, he has been restored to the new ball in the World Cup.

Today, he was on target from the first ball. He didn't have a wicket to show for it, but Langeveldt's could almost be attributed to him. Unable to get Pollock away, Bell attempted a pull from outside the off stump and only managed to scoop the ball in the air.

Andrew Hall's dismissal of Paul Collingwood ruined England's best hope for a revival © AFP

Andre Nel and Andrew Hall were the other bowling heroes. They haven't played every match in this World Cup so far, but it will take a brave captain not to play them in the rest. Nel was the ideal man to bowl to Kevin Pietersen because he does not care about looking like a fool while trying get under the batsman's skin. He greeted Pietersen with a snorter and peppered him with a few more before Pietersen decided to show the bowler his place. He managed a leading edge instead.

Hall then polished England off. He is unique among the South African quicks because unlike the others who hit the deck hard and rely on movement off the seam, he can swing it, both conventionally and reverse. In his second and third spells, he bent them in like the Pakistanis. His five-wicket tally could be considered flattering, but he removed Paul Collingwood, in whom lay England's best hope for a revival, and Andrew Flintoff, in whom rested the last hope for an unlikely miracle.

With the bat, South Africa were ruthless. The best way to chase a small score is to hunt it down so quickly that the opponents don't even sniff a chance. Smith and AB de Villiers went about demolishing the English bowlers with a swagger and plenty of punches. They weren't often pretty, particularly Smith who wields the bat like an axe, but they were savage, and they trusted their abilities.

By the seventh over, the score read 64. The corresponding score for England was nine. The difference between the sides was that massive. South Africa were as brutal and clinical as England were meek and feeble.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine