Match Analysis

Another milestone for England project

Alastair Cook's side have had an up-and-down year but the sense that they are on the rise is undeniable

At first glance, it may be hard to understand the excitement within English cricket at present.
They are, after all, a mid-ranked Test team who have lost as many matches as they have won in 2015. Even now, after a memorable victory in Durban, they have been defeated in three of their last five Tests and won only two of their last 13 abroad.
And yet, when Alastair Cook spoke of "good times ahead" in the aftermath of this win, it was hard to disagree. After some tough months, when England's inexperience has resulted in inconsistent results, it feels as if the investment is starting to pay off. It feels as if they are going places.
Odd though it sounds, they will face tougher tests than this. South Africa may be the No. 1 team in the Test rankings but, as they say in the world of investment banking, "past performance is not a guide to future performance". They have some significant challenges in front of them and England looked to have greater depth, to be better balanced, with more confidence and unity.
"Investment" might be an apposite word in understanding the development of this England side. As the previous England team - which included the likes of Graeme Swann, Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior and Kevin Pietersen - fell apart, it became clear that England may need to show some patience in their successors. Talented as the likes of Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes might have been, they were also raw. There were always likely to be days - days we saw at Lord's and Barbados, for example - when it was going to be important to remember this was a long-term project.
"Potentially this team can do some really good things. There's so much talent in this side"
Alastair Cook
So it was probably fitting that Moeen Ali should win his first Man of the Match award in this Test. Moeen was clearly not the finished article as a spinner when he came into this team. He probably still isn't. But a decision was made that, from the imperfect breeding ground that county cricket has become for spin bowlers, he was the man with the talent and temperament that could be developed. And, as he helped bowl England to victory, displaying sharp turn, pleasing drift and a decent arm ball, it appeared a wise move. Only eight men have more Test wickets than Moeen in the world this year. Somewhere, Peter Moores deserves a moment of quiet satisfaction over that.
"He just bowled brilliantly," Cook said. "He can be very proud of his performance under pressure. It's different from the first innings when less is expected of the spinner and everything is a bonus. The onus is on you to deliver in the second innings and he did deliver."
Perhaps there is a lesson there for England, their supporters and those of us in the media. Perhaps it is a reminder that, for all the frustration a Ben Stokes dismissal or Jonny Bairstow drop may provoke, the virtues of continuity of selection tend to outweigh the negatives and that it inevitably takes time to acclimatise to the standards of Test cricket. This squad - which includes Gary Ballance, Chris Jordan and Jos Buttler - is responding well to their nurturing and, with a couple of years of shared experiences to build on and shared goals to work towards, they have formed a bond which may see them through some of the inevitable tough times ahead.
It was telling that, when Bairstow responded to a mixed fourth day with a neat stumping on day five - England's first in Tests since 2012 - his team-mates were genuinely delighted for him. They knew how much it hurt him to have missed a couple of chances of late and they shared his joy at making amends. He and Buttler are far from the finished article but, like Moeen, will no doubt benefit from time and patience.
"We're very tight and we're learning together all the time," Moeen said. "And we're supporting each other when guys are down. We're going to make mistakes. We've made some big mistakes over the last couple of years."
The recall of Nick Compton - "a rock for us," in the words of Cook - certainly strengthened England in this game. His first innings defiance, with the pitch at its most tricky and the attack at its freshest, was a crucial contribution and he, too, would have been a worthy choice as Man of the Match. England look a far harder proposition for opposition bowlers now.
The continued recovery of Steven Finn was also pleasing. Like many of this team, he has experienced enough bad times in the game to appreciate the good. His ability to gain bounce from sluggish surfaces is a significant asset and his career strike-rate of 46.3 can hardly be dismissed as a freak after 27 Tests and 108 wickets. Stuart Broad, whose first-innings spell put England on top, has matured significantly as a cricketer over the last few months and showed that he could be dangerous in conditions offering him little.
"Potentially this team can do some really good things," Cook said. "There's so much talent in this side. Over the last eight months or so the guys have taken big strides forward. We didn't quite get our rewards in Abu Dhabi but we did today.
"It's a good side to captain. We feel balanced, the guys feel particularly happy and really hungry to push on. You see the guys training - from one to 17 in this squad - and think: 'There are good times ahead.'
"They're very talented to start with and they are hungry to do well. Playing for England means so much to the guys and it's such a fantastic thing to be able to do. The guys know what's out there for them if they're prepared to work hard."
This is but one Test, of course. Given England's inconsistency and South Africa's record at Cape Town and it becomes immediately apparent that a wake-up call may not be far away. Looking a bit further ahead, the tour of India towards the end of 2016 looks immensely taxing - it may define Moeen's career - while the Ashes tour that follows a year after that may well define the reputation of this side. The future is, at once, exciting and daunting, which is probably the way it should be.
But it will be this side. Most of this team are likely to form the nucleus of the side through to the next Ashes and beyond. They are nowhere near their peak at this stage.
"There are going to be some tough times," Cook said. "There always are. This result is really encouraging but let's not get too carried away. To get there [No. 1 in the Test rankings] takes relentless hard work and good results over a long period of time."
The immediate future, at least, looks bright. James Anderson bowled six overs at full pace before the start of play and looked untroubled by the calf injury that prevented him playing here. Stokes, who was noticeably discomforted by his infected toe on the fourth evening, is not understood to be a serious injury worry.
The stats - one series win in four this year - may not suggest it, but it feels as if England have made good progress in 2015. It feels as if there is plenty of room for optimism.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo