England have emerged from their 17-Tests-in-nine-months marathon with a record of two series wins out of five. But as sequences of two-series-wins-out-of-five go, this has been a highly promising one, emerging as it did from an actively atrocious World Cup and what now looks like the genuinely remarkable achievement of not beating West Indies.
They have won in South Africa without significant performances by either Alastair Cook or James Anderson, and they now have a core of still young but already experienced players, led by Joe Root, who after 38 Tests is looking like the most complete England batsman to emerge since the war, combining consistency and adaptability with a tendency to seize decisive moments.
Naturally, the apparent speed of an ascent can be relative to how fast something else is plummeting downwards, and if England are on an up escalator, South Africa have been bobsledding downwards on the other side. England have played some spectacular cricket; they have also shown spectacular timing, in choosing the best moment to play South Africa since their readmission to the international game (and possibly since the 1940s), shattered by their humiliation in India, and shorn of Dale Steyn, the greatest and most consistent bowler of his era, a man who could paper over a large number of cracks in any team. Having played only three Tests against South Africa in the past six years is starting to look like a strategic masterstroke, rather than wilfully bad, money-oriented, Ashes-obsessed scheduling, as it may have appeared at the time.
The third-day capitulation in Johannesburg
was South Africa's fourth sub-125 Test dismissal in the last two and a half months, after only one in the previous seven years. Two of those innings - 79 all out in Nagpur, and their 83 last Saturday - were their lowest scores since 1957.
At least, for fans of the late 19th century, there has been a certain nostalgia value about South Africa's batting. They were bowled out for under 100 in seven of their first eight Test innings (all against England), back in the days when Test matches sometimes only became Test matches some time after they had happened. Things improved somewhat with seven consecutive innings of 99 or more (only one of which was over 180), before they concluded their contribution to 19th-century international cricket in appropriate style, by being skittled for 35 at Newlands in April 1899.
As so often, Stuart Broad
was the prime agent of destruction. He may not look like a classic agent of destruction, but he has again reaffirmed his statistically provable destruction-bringing, series-turning credentials in the past six months. His masterful exploitation of propitious conditions in Johannesburg took out the whole of South Africa's top six; he had taken four of the top six in the first innings in Durban
to give England control of the game and an ultimately decisive 89-run lead; and on that tumultuous Ashes-seizing morning in Nottingham
, his 8 for 15 included five of Australia's top six.
In his 10 six-fors, Broad has taken his wickets at an average of 7.68, and a strike rate of 16.9, comfortably top of the 13 bowlers on the list (Derek Underwood is second in average [8.53], Imran Khan has the next best strike rate [22.9].)
To update a similar stat I wrote about in May
, before England's Test summer began (and when Broad had, for some time, and while remaining reasonably effective mislaid his opponent-devastating mojo), this was the 26th time that Broad has taken four or more wickets in an innings.
He is now one of exactly 100 bowlers who have taken four or more wickets at least 15 times in Tests
, spanning from Hugh Trumble at the turn of the 20th century to R Ashwin this decade. Counting only those innings in which they have taken four or more wickets, Broad has the best average of those 100, at 10.69 (ahead of Jason Gillespie, who averaged 10.78 in his 16 four-wicket-plus innings), and the best strike rate, at 22.6 (ahead of Shoaib Akhtar, 22.8 in 22 innings).
England's having played only three Tests against South Africa in the past six years is starting to look like a strategic masterstroke, rather than wilfully bad, money-oriented, Ashes-obsessed scheduling, as it may have appeared at the time
This suggests that Broad's hot streaks match those of anyone in the history of Tests, perhaps reflecting the vulnerability of modern batsmen to adverse conditions, but also testament to the skills and temperament of one of the most high-impact Test cricketers England has had.
These are exciting times for English Test cricket. Not many countries are enjoying exciting times in Test cricket, for various reasons, so whether these exciting times lead to exciting matches and exciting series against other exciting teams remains to be seen.
Catastrophic collapses are all the rage in international cricket. No fashionable side wants to miss out on the hip trend sweeping the cricketing world, and India contributed an absolute classic to the Canon of Cricketing Collapse with a match-losing subsidence in Canberra
that bordered on genius. Thirty-seven overs of almost perfect limited-overs batsmanship, a textbook blueprint for a 350 chase, had left them needing 75 off 13 overs, with nine wickets in hand.
To lose by any margin would have been an achievement. To lose by 25 runs (and that after an epic last-wicket stand of 8), after losing nine wickets for 46 in a match in which prior to Shikhar Dhawan's dismissal, nine wickets had fallen for 625, required a truly special effort. We have become accustomed to the previously inconceivable being achieved on the 21st-century cricket field, and it happened once again here, in a cavalcade of poorly conceived, incompetently executed thwoicks, plinks and squirts that must have prompted India's watching fans back home to think ruefully: "If only we had some form of high-profile domestic limited-overs competition, played in front of big, noisy crowds, so that our players could become accustomed to keeping calm under pressure."
In the games recorded by ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball records, which began in 1999, no team had previously lost nine wickets in overs 36-50 of an ODI chase. This game
in Sharjah in October 1999, in which Sri Lanka slumped against Pakistan from 157 for 1 in the 36th to 196 all out in 50th, was brought to my attention by a Mr @smacula on Twitter (it evidently was not recorded ball by ball). That, however, had been a low- and slow-scoring match, not a seven-an-over run-fest.
(It was also the fourth time that India have lost all 10 wickets to catches in an ODI innings, and the 20th time that has happened to any team. Fourteen of those have happened since March 2006 - once every 99 ODIs. Prior to March 2006, it had only happened once every 390 ODIs. The T20 era has perhaps made players not only far better at being rapidly skittled in Tests, but also far more proficient at smacking the ball straight up in the air in ODIs.)
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer