If class truly is permanent and form really is but temporary, what can we say of greatness? That it's another word for class? That there's a word even more time-and-tide-proof than permanent? We can certainly say without the slightest fear of contradiction that there was an appreciable and remarkable dollop of it on show at The Oval. Hints, betrayals and denials of it as well as stone-cold, enshrined-for-all-cricketing-time confirmation. But let's start with a couple of insights from one who knows.

The Olde Cock Tavern is one of those ancient haunts once beloved of Fleet Street's most fearless and feckless. The last Thursday in June found a gaggle of hacks assembled there to break bread with Ed Moses, one of the greatest of all Olympians and honoured guest of the Sports Journalists' Association of Great Britain. Once the formalities had been done and dusted, the interrogation began. What ensued was mostly gentle, very occasionally provocative, unfailingly polite and deferential.

What, I enquired by way of a gentle, polite and deferential opening half-volley, had been the chief motivation for this arch-competitor, the chap who not only won the Olympic 400 metres hurdles in 1976 and 1984 sans chemical assistance (and would almost certainly have done so in 1980 had the US not boycotted the Moscow Games) but strung together an unbeaten streak of 107 consecutive finals and 122 races all told?

Measured but affable, the response was disarmingly straightforward: height and, as his aura grew to such extraordinary heights, a constantly reinvigorating dread of defeat. "I was five-foot-eight, one of the smaller boys at school. Too small for football, too small for basketball. No one picked me."

Later he recalled an eerie out-of-body experience during the 1984 Olympic final in LA: "There were 100,000 in the stadium but after the third hurdle everything went quiet, bar the sound of feet landing, step patterns and legs brushing hurdles." Not only did he possess every last milligram of the focus required by all those who seek sporting greatness, he could even eliminate the crowd from the equation. And when mind can defeat matter, as it must when your every move is being watched and scrutinised, anything is possible.

It is that capacity to block out all extraneous thoughts that separates the indisputable greats from the nearlys and almosts and not-a-chancers. South Africa currently boast three of the first and one poised to complete the transition, and at The Oval they all had their game face on when it mattered. Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn underscored in the most indelible of red ink why they have the Moses touch. For this triumvirate, more conspicuously than for most sportsfolk, the motivation does indeed appear to be that dread of defeat - or, more positively, the need for victory, as opposed to merely the desire.

In trumping them, moreover, Hashim Amla confirmed that he, too, possesses that other prime prerequisite of those pursuing posterity: unshakeable faith in one's own strengths. The most obvious symbol of this has been his faith in his own faith - hence his continued refusal to compromise by bearing the Castle Lager logo* on his uniform. And while he may be a sublime artist, he's also a sound scientist and sure-footed strategist who knows how to reduce error, pace an innings and conduct a partnership of substance - witness how he spent 47 balls moving from 46 to 56, then inched from 54 to 70 while Smith surged from 37 to 84. Style and steel seldom find such harmony. Think Lara, ponder VVS: he may well have it in him to outdo both.

By contrast, sadly, Kennington appeared to reveal all too much about Ravi Bopara's shortcomings, for what is talent without appropriate application? Two self-engendered dismissals - whether attributable to inferior shot selection (first dig) or execution (second) - should be considered the perfect riposte to the columnist who recently picked him at first-drop for an all-British Asian 2015 England XI scribbled on the obituaries page of the Times. But then, assessing putative greatness is rarely straightforward.

Within 18 months of Smith launching his reign by caning England with double-tons in consecutive Tests, he was presiding over a team that had lost three successive final Tests, and four out of five; not one of those stumbles resulted in a rubber won. Then came twin thrashings by Australia full of personal non-contributions. It also took him just 17 months to slither from an average muscling towards 80 to below 52. How many forecast then where he stands today?

IF GREATNESS CAN BE DEFINED as the ability to rise above the pack, to convert the unusual into the routine and the unlikely into the matter-of-fact, to do the necessary when it matters most, it can be more instructively rationalised as the capacity to bend and shape events by will, to dictate history rather than be dictated to by it. Kallis and Steyn accomplish this one way, Smith another.

Kallis, who can do everything with authority bar keep wicket (though you wouldn't necessarily bet against him doing better than de Villiers), is, on figures if not versatility, the most consistently and durably prolific allrounder the international game has ever seen; Steyn is the pre-eminent paceman of the past decade, one where wickets have seldom if ever attracted a higher price or extracted a sterner toll; yet that has still failed signally to stop him posting a strike rate that would have chuffed even that prince of diffidence SF Barnes. One has licence to dominate, the other to enthral and ill. Both have skill and intent to burn.

South Africa romped home not just because their key men so vividly demonstrated the difference between those who have savoured greatness, recognise its permanence and know how it means more than mere class, and those still attempting to cross the bridge from mere excellence

Smith has achieved greatness despite the despites. Despite a technique that defies most if not all tenets of the average textbook, despite being saddled with the captaincy at a tender 22, and despite, as Telford Vice put it, being " tasked with rebuilding South Africans' faith in the integrity of game itself" following the H***** C***** betrayal, he has proved himself, over and over again, as both opener par excellence (over the past 10 years none has exceeded his Test hauls of 7938 runs, 25 hundreds and 30 half-montys) and leader supreme (doubtless has those ever-alert eyes set on becoming the first to orchestrate 50 wins). As attested by the fact that he has captained his country nearly twice as many times as Mark Taylor, the next most successful opener-captain, nobody has borne those twin burdens with such indomitable resolve.

Yet while none of their number has quite reached the summit of unqualified greatness - in itself, perhaps, the secret to a resurgence that could yet see them become the first act to reside at No. 1 in the 33rpm, 45 and 78 charts simultaneously - England have more budding greats in their camp: Jimmy Anderson, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Andrew Strauss and Graeme Swann are all on course to break long-standing national records, and who knows how many surprises Jonathan Trott has still to spring, or how good Steven Finn could be.

That only Prior came close to cutting the mustard in south London may say something unpalatable about English over-confidence or unflattering about those - myself among them - who are finding it increasingly hard to recall a better team of Poms in any sport since 1966. Would it be reasonable, therefore, to state that, when it mattered, they allowed themselves to be bent and mis-shapen? No, because that would diminish the merits of South Africa's strident quartet and the way they imposed their will, the way greatness has always imposed its will and always will. You'd still need a sizeable pair of blinkers to neglect the X-factor.

It is difficult not to conclude that Mark Boucher's sight-threatening eye injury was even more important to the tourists than the first encounter of a crucial if pitifully and shamefully short series. After his devoted wicketkeeper had been felled by that evil bail at Taunton, Smith expressed the hope that South Africa would "play with him in our hearts and minds", not just on this tour but "for many years". You could see it most obviously when Kallis pointed to his right eye after reaching his century, but also when Steyn lost his rag with Gary Kirsten, and when Smith himself, eyes ablaze, read the riot act after his team took the field for the final session on day one. Whatever he said, the response was all but immediate; every man jack shifted up a gear.

Defying most predictions, however misguided, South Africa romped home on Monday afternoon not just because their key men so vividly demonstrated the difference between those who know how to eliminate the crowd, who have savoured greatness, recognise its permanence and know how it means more than mere class, and those still attempting to cross the bridge from mere excellence. They also did so because they're running out of time to bring their nation's cricket to fulfilment, and because, perhaps above all, Boucher gave them a cause beyond themselves.

Between now and next Thursday morning, the Andocracy will be citing last November, when Smith's own side bowled Australia out for 47 in Cape Town then permitted the same opposition to chase down 300-plus in Jo'burg. They will also be ramming home the overriding message ad nauseam: one crushing defeat doth not a bad side make. What they must fear is that the Boucher Factor has the roots Smith believes and the longevity he craves.

12:08:22 GMT, July 25, 2012: The article originally stated that Amla pays a $500 fine for not sporting the Castle Lager logo, which is not true

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton